Tuesday, 31 March 2020

Corona-crisis hits nuclear sector


Covid19 spread shows up vulnerability at heart of nuclear programmes, with resilience of critical national infrastructures undermined

First indications that the dreaded coronavirus had penetrated the very heart of the UK nuclear sector came in on 15 March when Sellafield Ltd confirmed that a worker at the vast nuclear waste management  complex- employing 13,000 workers- had tested positive for Covid19.

A Sellafield Ltd spokesman said: We are in contact with Public Health England and are following their advice to protect our employees and partners, while maintaining our focus on the safety and security of the Sellafield site.

(Cumbria Crack 15th March 2020; https://www.cumbriacrack.com/2020/03/15/sellafield-worker-tests-positive-for-coronavirus/). The number of infected workers subsequently rose.


 Concerns were raised  about the overall safety of Sellafield if the plant did not have enough active workers to continue operating ( it has over 400  separate building dealing in various ways with  dangerous nuclear materials, some of which have to  be very carefully actively cooled to stop overheating and  gas explosions) and was not closed to passive state properly. Frankly,  any accident would make coronavirus look like a ‘vicar's tea party’, with the whole of the north of England and south of Scotland uninhabitable for a century or more!!


Sellafield is terrifyingly unique! Closure of other critical national infrastructures, such  one or more power plants, nuclear or not, closure of part  of the national grid electricity  or gas  distribution  system, closure of a dockyard, would not result in ecological catastrophe, but inconvenience, to greater or lesser degrees


Inappropriate closure of Sellafield to passive maintenance estate due to an on-site chronic outbreak of coronavirus would be an unmitigated disaster, qualitatively much more dangerous than any other facility in the country being disabled by the same coronavirus.


There are some nightmarish possible consequences. A memorandum submitted by Dr Gordon Thompson, the executive director of the Institute for Resource and Security Studies (based in Cambridge, near Boston, USA)  to the UK Parliament Defence Select Committee (on 3 January 2002)  – following earlier publication on 18 December 2001 by the same committee on The Threat from Terrorism -  stressed how  any radical failure in the cooling capacity of the high activity radioactive waste tanks at Sellafield could lead to environmental catastrophe:


“over a period of days, these tanks would boil dry, after which the solid residue in the tanks would heat up and release volatile radio-isotypes—including caesium-137—to the atmosphere. The eventual release of caesium-137 to the atmosphere might exceed 50 per cent of the inventory in the tanks. The present inventory (see Section 2, above) is about 8 million TBq (2,400 kilograms). Thus, the release of caesium-137 to the atmosphere might exceed 4 million TBq (1,200 kilograms)….  Radioactive material could be released from a nuclear facility in two ways: (a) as an atmospheric release composed of small particles and gases; or (b) as a liquid release. An atmospheric release would create a plume that would travel downwind. Particles in the plume would be deposited on the ground and other surfaces. A liquid release would contaminate ground water or surface water. For example, a liquid release at Sellafield could contaminate the Irish Sea.” (https://publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm200102/cmselect/cmdfence/518/518ap02.htm)


aerial of the Sellafield site

The Sellafield site

On 23 March, the Sellafield management announced that site would be paused for 48 hours, to plan changes to work patterns and welfare provisions. On the same day, it was announced that  the French equivalent to Sellafield, the giant  nuclear  complex  (“Usine) of La Hague  on the Cotentin peninsular in Normandy, had begun its own phase down. (“Coronavirus : Orano la Hague met à l’arrêt ses installations- Sur le site d'Orano la Hague, toutes les activités de retraitement de combustibles nucléaires usés sont stoppées ce mardi 17 mars 2020. Les installations sont mises à l'arrêt » ; 17 Mar 2020 https://actu.fr/normandie/beaumont-hague_50041/coronavirus-orano-hague-met-larret-installations_32342507.html


La direction d'Orano la Hague, face à l'épidémie de coronavirus, a décidé de mettre à l'arrêt ses installations.La direction d’Orano la Hague, face à l’épidémie de coronavirus, a décidé de mettre à l’arrêt ses installations. (©Jean-Paul BARBIER)

(The nearby naval nuclear complex at Cherbourg had announced on 16 March :it too was going into operational  cold storage.https://actu.fr/normandie/cherbourg-en-cotentin_50129/coronavirus-naval-group-lactivite-est-suspendue-dans-chantier-laubeuf_32317648.html)

Vue d'archive du chantier Laubeuf. 

Regulatory impact


I asked the UK nuclear regulator what proportion of ONR staff being forced into simultaneous self-isolation would trigger a crisis that would not allow nuclear safety and security regulatory oversight to continue effectively across the UK? And, if this situation arose, what executive regulatory decision would be required if all operating nuclear facilities could no longer be simultaneously regulated to a legal standard?


ONR was also asked via its independent advisory panel:  What criteria would ONR use to decide whether an infectious outbreak like coronavirus should cause a licensee to shut down its operations (eg percentage of employees off sick, key managers off sick; high incidence of infection in surrounding areas; inability to undertake critical functions; and, what action would ONR require a site operator to undertake to temporarily make a plant safe in the event that an outbreak like coronavirus made it impossible to operate the plant to normal standards?


ONR responded thus:

/_ONR Internal Arrangements_/

/We have business continuity plans and incident management procedures in
place for a range of scenarios. We have recently tested these plans and
incident management arrangements and are confident that we would be able
to continue to operate essential services./


/_External Arrangements_/

/All civil nuclear sites have minimum staffing levels, and contingency
plans should they fall below these levels, to enable them to remain in
control of activities that could impact on nuclear safety under all
foreseeable circumstances throughout the life cycle of the facility.
This is enforced through nuclear site licence condition 36 (LC36)^made
under the Nuclear Installations Act. /


/An ONR Technical Assessment Guide (focused on staffing levels and task
organisation) sets out ONR’s expectations on appropriate numbers of
Suitably Qualified and Experienced Persons (SQEPs). You can find it on
our website./


/In addition, licensees need minimum staffing levels to comply with
their on-site and off-site emergency plans. The on-site arrangements are
covered under nuclear site licence condition 11 (LC11) and are tested on
an annual basis, with the exception of some low hazard sites where
modular testing arrangements are in place. Again, an ONR Technical
Inspection Guide on LC11 gives their expectations, also on our website./


/Under the Nuclear Industries Security Regulations 2003, nuclear site
security plans must describe the manner in which the premises are to be
policed and guarded, including the number of such personnel who will
normally be present and the contingency measures to be implemented
should this level of staffing not be achieved./


/Staff rotas at nuclear sites are resilient to keep generation running
in scenarios including pandemic or industrial action. If a generating
site needed to be shut down for any reason, it would be shut down
safely. In the case of a complex, non-generating site like Sellafield,
operations would be scaled back to a level necessary to sustain
essential safety operations. /

/In line with the arrangements set out above, our inspectors are in
contact with licensees, as appropriate, given the developing national
and international situation./


Then another disturbing aspect of the threat from Covid 19 to safe nuclear operations arose, at the vast nuclear site at Hinkley Point – it has a closed nuclear power plant (NPP) ‘A’, an operational NPP ‘B’, and a new NPP ‘C’ under  construction - on Somerset’s north coast, on the Bristol Channel.


Local civil society group, the Stop Hinkley (SH) campaign, loudly announced that it was horrorified that the 4,000-strong workforce at the HPC construction site was set to continue working during the Coronavirus Lockdown effecting the rest of the UK. SH spokesperson Katy Attwater said:


This is putting lives at risk right across Somerset and the whole of the country. Why hasn’t the Prime Minister ordered them to stay at home – is he just pandering to the nuclear lobby?


HP owner, French–state EDF Energy said it was taking “extra steps” to safeguard the health of workers, planning body temperature checks on all workers entering the site, and has banned handshakes and agreed to halve the number of people travelling on each bus.

EDF announced on 24 March it was reducing the workforce at Hinkley Point C by more than half in the coming days because of the coronavirus outbreak. The reduction were aimed, EDF said, at allowing easier social distancing in operational areas and sites such as canteens, adding

 “Keeping this capability intact is essential for a project of critical national importance and an industry which plays a key role in helping the UK reach net zero (greenhouse gas emissions).”


Meantime, EDF had effectively closed down building work it controversial Flamanville nuclear plant under  construction  near to the La Hague Radioactive waste processing plant., because the fear of the  spread of Covid19. Nuclear Intelligence Week reported an EDF spokesperson as stating”


 “As of Monday, March 16 only the staff performing tasks essential for safety and security are required to be present on the Flamanville site: operating crews, site protection team, safety engineers and personnel in charge of  environmental monitoring, At Flamanville 3 EPR essential activities continue [referring to activities needed to keep the site from falling into disrepair.]"


On 26 March, the French nuclear safety authority ( L’Autorité de sûreté nucléaire,  ASN)  suspended on-site safety inspections at French nuclear power plants due to the coronavirus. They are being replaced with "inspections at a distance", unless there is a major nuclear emergency. This means teleconferences with operators and the examination of documents. EDF has already suspended all "non-essential" maintenance, which ASN asked them to self- define.


Meanwhile, back across the water, despite what EDF said, on 25 March, the Daily Mail newspaper printed a photograph whose caption stated it was taken in the workers canteen at Hinkley Point. Dinners are packed together, with absolutely no spacing.


The umbrella–group, Nuclear Free Local Authorities network (NFLA) stated with concern. “We find it remarkable that construction is continuing given the social distancing regulations which all other sectors of the economy are having to abide by. 

It is, we would argue, virtually impossible to continue safe working for large construction works given that workers would need to be in close proximity for much of these works.”     


SOCIAL DISTANCING: Workers in the canteen at Hinkley Popint

SOCIAL DISTANCING: Workers in the canteen at Hinkley Point


Next day, this was the scene in the canteen at Hinkley Point C this morning. The local on-line news series reported that EDF “has obviously taken measures to try to ensure social distancing between workers, placing plastic bags over every other seat to keep people apart from each other during the Coronavirus crisis.”


However, a plant insider questioned whether it is enough to keep the workers the recommended two metres apart, saying: "They've done their best, but when anybody moves, they're inevitably immediately within two metres of someone else…It's a bit scary. Some people are a bit worried and are talking about it."


A HP spokesman said: "Construction at Hinkley Point C continues and the project is taking extra steps to protect the health and wellbeing of everyone on site. Hinkley Point C will continue working with contractors and trades unions to review the situation as it develops."

 (“Social distancing fears in Hinkley Point C canteen despite EDF's best efforts,” This is the West Country, 24 March 2020; www.thisisthewestcountry.co.uk/news/somerset_news/18330262.social-distancing-fears-hinkley-point-c-canteen-despite-edfs-best-efforts/)

The chief nuclear inspector, Mark Foy, commented:


“Firstly, let me assure you that we are in close contact with all our nuclear sites in light of the Covid-19 pandemic to ensure we have full understanding of the emerging situation, how it is impacting the sites and the additional safeguards that are being introduced.


We are aware of the situation at Hinkley Point C where the licensee is in the process of implementing major reductions in the number of people on the site.  It is managing this in a staged and controlled manner, to ensure the works are made safe before each of the numerous work faces is closed down.


In addition to the significant reduction in the workforce, the licensee is also enhancing its coronavirus measures to ensure that it appropriately manages the risks and limits the spread of the virus in line with government advice.  Measures include body temperature checks; enhanced/deep cleaning of buses, canteens, door handles, desks, eating areas, welfare facilities, toilets and other touch points; hand sanitisers distributed across site.”



NFLA remained sceptical observing”


“…social distancing rules from the government are clear around the real risk of close proximity, and how can EDF be confident that such rules can be observed all the time over such a complex site? The UK has gone into a new stage this week of a full lockdown to stop, if at all possible, the spread of infection. With the best will in the world, having 2,000 people in close proximity to each other raises the real risk of local infections increasing.


The other issue is that contractors will be using public transport routes locally and perhaps regionally, putting members of the wider public at risk as well.”


Then, suddenly, as the apparent risks hotted-up, ONR backed off from taking responsibility, with Mark Foy stating:  


“The specific measures that any site takes in relation to social distancing for its staff are not within our regulatory vires [ie legal responsibilities] and have been designated the responsibility of the local authority, under emergency legislation.

“..The licensee has greatly reduced pressure in its canteens, they have closed-off seats and increased spacing between tables; they have also identified ‘canteen marshals’ to advise staff; they have increased the number of buses and limited the available spaces on buses; social distancing is in force at work faces, as well as in locker rooms, briefing rooms and meeting rooms; more than 3000 test-kits have been ordered which will arrive on site in 2 weeks’ time.”


He ended asserting:


“Please be assured that we continue to maintain close regulatory oversight of all our sites to ensure they comply with legal requirements in relation to nuclear safety, security and conventional health and safety during any organisational changes as a result of coronavirus restrictions.”







 Image may contain: one or more people, people standing, sky and outdoor

Image may contain: one or more people, shoes and outdoor

Image may contain: 5 people, people standing, shoes and indoor

Image may contain: one or more people, people standing, shoes and indoor


Source: Reel News

 (Pictures taken Wednesday March 25 at 6pm


But, despite a decision by EDF to reduce its Hinkley C workforce,  local residents still complained that while they were in lockdown, HPC construction workers could  ‘come and go as they wish’. “People are very scared and concerned,” said Cllr Chris Morgan, chairman of Stogursey Parish Council and the area’s councillor on Somerset West and Taunton Council. “What is happening is a recipe for disaster.”

Cllr Morgan added that, while he welcomed the reduction in the Hinkley workforce,

“you have still got a very large group of people doing what everyone else has been told not to do. …We have a large multiple occupation building (HMO) in the middle of the village, another in Castle Street, one in Burton and many rented rooms, all full of people going to work, coming back, using the shops, all mixing together. “When you have a predominantly older age group  - it is a recipe for disaster! Most of the villages around Hinkley Point have quarantined themselves but when you have got people constantly doing the complete opposite of that being asked of the people who live here, it just doesn’t seem right. “This is a national emergency.”

 Parish council vice-chairman Cllr Sue Goss said that “Our main concern, particularly in Stogursey parish, is that we still have contractors who quite rightly go home at the weekends, some to the Covid 19 hotspots of South Wales and the West Midlands, and then return to the middle of our local community, totally untested, before they return to the site.

The, early morning of 31 March, the  UK nuclear regulator (ONR)  issued an astonishing statement on Covid19 and its responsibilities, following five days of solid lobbying by the local and  national anti-nuclear groups over the continued construction at Hinkley C.

It must rank as one of the most egregiously complacent and content-less statements ever made by a regulator, packed with platitudes, but short on any  supportive evidence

Here are some extracts:

ONR is

“continuing to protect society by securing safe nuclear operations during the COVID-19 pandemic.”

“A limited number of our inspectors can, as key workers, continue to travel to site as necessary to conduct urgent and essential regulatory inspections.”

The COVID-19 pandemic is a public health matter and, last week, the [UK] government introduced new emergency legislation regarding the enforcement of ‘social distancing measures.’ ONR does not play a role in enforcing new social distancing measures on nuclear licensed sites. Enforcement of the new legislation is designated to police forces and local authorities.

We will continue to regulate matters under the Health & Safety at Work etc. Act 1974, and associated regulations, and the Energy Act 2013, including ensuring that licensees and duty holders are adequately resourced to continue to safely and securely carry out their activities.”

All licensed sites are required to determine minimum staffing levels necessary to ensure safe and secure operations and contingency arrangements in the event that these levels are not met.

This condition is specifically designed to ensure that industry can adequately manage and control activities that could impact on nuclear safety and security under all foreseeable circumstances, including pandemics.

We are engaged on a daily basis with licensees and duty holders to ensure that their activities are appropriately resourced. Should we have any concerns about staffing levels or welfare that could potentially impact nuclear safety and security, we will immediately address these with licensees and dutyholders as necessary.

In due course, we will work with industry to re-plan activity for when operations return to normal.”

(Coronavirus (COVID-19) – ONR Position; 31 March, 2020; http://news.onr.org.uk/2020/03/covid-19/

Then, a new question was raised: what if ONR on-site inspectors themselves were in danger of getting contaminated, and bringing the Covid19 infection back to ONR HQ in Bootle, near Liverpool?



Other activities in the UK nuclear sector

Coronavirus measures at UKAEA:

(“How working arrangements at the UK Atomic Energy Authority are changing due to the coronavirus;” UK Atomic Energy Authority 24 March 2020; https://www.gov.uk/government/news/coronavirus-measures-at-ukaea)

In line with current guidance, the UK Atomic Energy Authority suspended “all but essential on-site operations” at Culham Science and Fusion energy centre, and asked all staff not involved in that activity to work at home. UKAEA has remote access systems allowing  other work to continue.


The US Scene


On 24 March Maria Korsnick, ceo of the Nuclear Energy Institute, issued  a bland statement on the US nuclear industry’s pandemic preparednes plans and preparations.



But much more important, was a hard-hitting critique two days later of the policy by Washington DC –based Dr Ed Lyman, acting director, at the nuclear safety project and Senior Scientist for the Global Security Program at the Union of Concerned Scientists


Lyman opened suggesting that with the world “facing overwhelming and immediate threats from the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, the risks of nuclear power are probably far from the thoughts of most people.”

He pointed out that the nuclear regulator (USNRC) does not generally oversee the health and safety of plant workers unless it is related to radiation exposure, so it is largely up to the plant owners themselves to implement protective measures against COVID-19 to ensure they have a functioning workforce, Adding:

“Reports about potential coronavirus cases among the workforce at Plant Vogtle in Georgia and allegations of a lack of enforcement of social distancing protocols there raise concerns about the adequacy of the industry’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic.”

Stressing that “tens of millions of Americans live within 50 miles of operating nuclear power plants “ he argued that

A reactor accident or terrorist attack could release a large amount of radioactive material into the environment, potentially exposing many people to high levels of radiation.

But, compounding the impacts of such a disaster with the social and economic disruptions caused by spread of the virus,  would , he stressed “further strain an already fragile health care system and economy.”

Short-staffing nuclear plants

A key question the NRC may soon face is how it should react if a nuclear plant is unable to maintain the required numbers of licensed control room operators and security personnel per shift.


Dr Lyman gave the example:

“a single control room at a two-unit plant must be staffed with three operators and two senior operators. Also, there must be at least ten armed responders on each shift to protect the plant from radiological sabotage attacks—and the actual number most plants have committed to providing is likely higher. There are also regulations governing work hours and fatigue management that were put into place partly to address excessive overtime issues that arose after the 9/11 attacks. to meet any of these requirements, it generally must shut down unless the NRC provides an exemption from the regulations or relief from license commitments.”

NRC can allow reactors to operate while in violation of their legally binding license commitments by granting a’ “notice of enforcement discretion.’ The radiological risk to public health and safety will generally increase when the plant is operating outside of approved license limits, he highlighted..

The NRC assured me, he closed out saying,

“..that its risk standards for granting enforcement discretion have not changed and that if they deemed any plant unsafe they could and would issue an order to shut it down.”

(“Nuclear Power Safety and the COVID-19 Pandemic,” UCS, March 26, 2020: https://allthingsnuclear.org/elyman/nuclear-power-safety-and-the-covid-19-pandemic


Lyman is a neutral, but highly critical, scientist. A more overt anti m nuclear group is Beyond Nuclear, based just outside of Washington DC. BN’s international editor, Linda Pentz Gunter, recently wrote a trenchant attack on the US nuclear industry strategy to exploit the Coronavirus crisis, under the headline While industry looks for handouts, NRC gives nod to reduced safety oversight”

She opened trenchantly, arguing that “ it was no surprise really, when the first to line up with outstretched palms as the US Congress debated and formulated its now passed $2 trillion coronavirus-prompted emergency relief bill, were nuclear corporations.

“The sinking nuclear power industry spotted an economic lifeline and couldn’t wait to make a grab for it. The Nuclear Energy Institute, the lobbying arm of the nuclear power industry, rushed off a letter to congressional leaders asking for a 30% tax credit and waivers for existing regulatory fees.”

she continued, and pointed out that :

During a recent NRC and industry telephone meeting on the topic, Beyond Nuclear’s director of reactor oversight, Paul Gunter, asked whether the NRC had supplied its reactor site personnel with sufficient protective equipment, masks, and respirators, as per the Centers for Disease Control guidelines. ‘They blew it off, Gunter said. ‘They claimed it was a matter for OSHA.’ Industry representatives on the call remained silent on the matter.”

The industry is “ dictating to the regulator what the agenda will be.” So it’sbusiness as usual, Gunter concluded


International reactions


An almost diametrically opposite nuclear narrative has been told by the World Nuclear Association, the global lobbyists for the industry.

WNA’s Swedish Director Genera, Agneta Rising, writing on the WNA’s own web site World Nuclear News, argued:

“Nuclear power has responded to the call to action in the public health crisis that each and every one of us is facing"The global COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic is prompting dramatic actions from governments, placing great restrictions on people and on business in order to save potentially millions of lives."

https://www.world-nuclear-news.org/BlankSiteASPX/media/WNNImported/mainimagelibrary/people/AgnetaRising.jpg?ext=.jpgAgneta Rising, World Nuclear Association director general (Image: WNA)

She said she wanted to “pay particular tribute to the utilities, their workers and their suppliers who are keeping their reactors running during this public health crisis. Their work reminds us just how crucial nuclear energy is as a source of 24/7 electricity supply.”

Echoing the US NEI, she asserted that the nuclear industry,

“with its strong safety culture and well-established emergency preparedness protocols, has been able to respond swiftly to the disruptions created by the COVID-19 pandemic. Companies have implemented business continuity plans and prepared for the impacts of the response to the virus. Plant operators are applying various measures to protect the health of their workers: enhanced hygiene procedures, staggered shifts and lunch breaks to enable social distancing are all being used to minimise the spread of the virus.”

And she ended, asserting “the nuclear energy industry has come together to help with the global effort to fight - and ultimately overcome - this disease."

(”Message: Nuclear power in the fight against COVID-19,” 27 March 2020; www.world-nuclear-news.org/Articles/Message-Nuclear-power-in-the-fight-against-COVID-1?feed=feed)



Uranium industry impacted too


The rapid spread of the coronavirus is weighing heavily on markets and battered equities, the Investment News Network reports. It added:

The uranium industry, which has been depressed for the bulk of the last four years, has also been impacted, with the chaos in the world adding another headwind to the space.”

As more closures and stricter regulations limiting social interaction are introduced around the world, INN produced a uranium-focused COVID-19 report.

Uranium and COVID-19: Producers

Kazatomprom, the world’s largest private uranium company - accounting for 41 percent of world mine supply in 2018- issued a statement on 16 March regarding the spread of the coronavirus, that outlined the company’s heightened safety measures and notes that “its projects will remain open due to their remote locations.”

Energy Fuels, the US-based company issued a brief statement on March 18 ahead of its 2019 full-year conference call. Canceling travel and conference attendance are some of the measures the company has implemented to protect employees. Management also plans to hold regular webcasts or conference calls in the weeks and months ahead to keep investors apprised of developments.

Denison Mines, a Canada-focused operation “has temporarily suspended its Wheeler River - in Saskatchewan’s Athabasca Basin -  environmental assessment (EA) to reduce the spread of the virus.”

Uranium Energy, in a March 20 statement announced plans to have staff work remotely; maintenance protocols at its Hobson processing plant and Palangana in-situ recovery mine remain unchanged.

Cameco, Canada’s giant uranium miner,  said that in response to the Canadian government’s increasing restrictions due to the spread of COVID-19, Cameco ( the world’s leading publicly traded uranium producer,” has announced it would “ halt production at its Cigar Lake mine in Northern Saskatchewan.”

Energy Resources of Australia, owner of the huge Ranger mine, “remains open at this time and the company is confident it will meet its yearly guidance.”

Uranium and COVID-19:  Who’s Reacting and How?” March 25, 2020


In Pandemic 1918, published in 2018 by Michael O’Mara Books, its author Catharine Arnold  draws some parallels across the century since the catastrophic influenza contagion that killed  an extraordinary 100 million victims, pointing  out that the threat of a  pandemic flu is as severe  as that of a terrorist attack, and added :

According to Professor Oxford, the impact of a flu pandemic in Great Britain would be the equivalent of blowing up a nuclear power station.”

ONR, extraordinarily, seem determined to combine the two!