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How Safety and Security Regulators Addressed Challenges during the COVID-19 Pandemic

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Challenges faced and addressed by safety and security regulators during the COVID-19 outbreak were the focus of the discussion today at the annual Senior Safety and Security Regulators’ Meeting, held virtually on the sidelines of the 64th IAEA General Conference. While the IAEA had provided regulators and operators with a discussion platform to share their experience since the beginning of the pandemic, this session enabled a deeper understanding of actions taken to ensure nuclear and radiation safety and security, as well as the capacity to respond in case of a nuclear or radiological emergency during the pandemic.

In 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic challenged countries and their nuclear and related activities in various new ways. In March, lockdowns were established in most countries, borders were closed and only staff identified as essential were allowed to travel and work on site, while others worked remotely, when possible.

Since then, regulators from more than 120 countries had provided insights to the IAEA into how they managed their regulatory activities with the restrictions. At today’s meeting, seven representatives of national authorities – from Argentina, China, Mauritius, Pakistan, South Africa, the United Kingdom and the United States – shared their experience and action plans to ensure that nuclear and radiation safety and security were continuously maintained during this unprecedented time. These were wide-ranging, a selection of which are reported here.

Nuclear and radiation safety and security

Regulators ensured business continuity with reduced staff and activities on site and at the site of their licensees such as nuclear power plants, hospitals and radiation facilities. They quickly implemented preventive measures for staff, such as social distancing, personal hygiene measures, masks, temperature monitoring and quarantine after work travel.

The use of online communication, including videoconferences and tele-meetings, has increased. This enabled them to continue working even if access to some required regulatory information was limited while working remotely, said F.A. Ollite, Director of the Radiation Safety and Nuclear Security Authority of Mauritius. Regulators in some countries decided to upgrade their IT systems to ensure safe and secure online communication.

Inspection and enforcement activities were reduced but continued to be carried out in most countries, speakers said, while some regulatory functions such as licencing and specific authorization processes were delayed, and training activities were postponed. Priority was given to core activities for safety and security, such as in-field inspections at nuclear power plants. Remote inspections were organized to minimize the spread of the virus, without compromising regulatory effectiveness. Some inspectors of the Pakistan Nuclear Regulatory Authority (PNRA) resided at the site of two nuclear power plants under construction, after following quarantine protocols, to verify ongoing construction and commissioning activities, said Faizan Mansoor, Executive Member of the PNRA.

In Argentina, the transport of radioactive material was carried out without major inconveniences, complying with the applicable safety and security requirements, said Christian Elechosa, who represented the country’s Nuclear Regulatory Authority at the meeting. As civil aviation was suspended, almost all material had to be transported by road, where traffic was light during this period.

The United Kingdom saw a peak of staff absence of 18-20% in the nuclear sector relating to suspected COVID-19 cases and related quarantine measures, said Mark Foy, Chief Nuclear Inspector at the Office for Nuclear Regulation (ONR). While the nuclear industry has shown resilience to the COVID-19 pandemic, nuclear safety and security might be challenged in case of more severe pandemics, he said. Regulators need to be prepared to carry out their work and ensure public safety even under such circumstances.

At the end of March, the IAEA set up the COVID-19 Nuclear Power Plant OPEX Network, a platform for peer-to-peer sharing of COVID-19 related mitigating measures and impact by operators. Regulators could access information given by plant operators and adapt their recommendations accordingly.

Ensuring emergency preparedness and response despite COVID-19

“The impact of nuclear accidents [recognize no] country boundary, and nuclear emergency preparedness and response is by no means a small matter,” said Min Huang, Deputy Director General of the Department of Nuclear Emergency & Safety Regulation at China’s Atomic Energy Authority (CAEA). China followed strict protocols during its lockdown. It re-enforced its emergency preparedness teams to compensate for staff who may fall sick or need to be quarantined. Huang expressed China’s willingness to support all IAEA activities in this area and to collaborate with countries on nuclear emergency preparedness and response management.

The U.S. federal regulatory body did not identify any weaknesses that would prevent state and local emergency management organizations from responding effectively in the event of a radiological emergency at a nuclear power plant, said Margaret Doane, Executive Director for Operations at the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission. A 24-hour operations centre remained functional and staffed during the pandemic. However, it became clear that alternative methods to staff emergency response facilities at licensees was necessary, should a declared nuclear or radiological event occur, Doane said. Also, in local hospitals, temporary alternatives to usual methods of working needed to be implemented to ensure medical response readiness, she added.

In South Africa there was some anxiety among the civil society regarding the need to shelter in their homes as opposed to evacuate in case of a nuclear or radiological emergency, said M. B. Tyobeka, CEO of the National Nuclear Regulator (NNR). NNR clarified its guidance in order to reassure executive authorities that “the likelihood of an evacuation scenario was low, and that certain emergency situations would in contrast favour being confined to one’s residence” in any case, he added.

The IAEA’s Incident and Emergency Centre (IEC) continued to ensure that communication channels for notification and information exchange in nuclear and radiological emergencies remained fully operational on a 24/7 basis, said Elena Buglova, Head of the IEC. At the end of March, the IEC conducted virtual exercises to practise with countries and relevant international organizations different arrangements within the international emergency preparedness and response framework.

Maintaining training and education

The importance of online training was raised by participants at today’s event. To ensure that high-level training was accessible for all during the lockdown, the IEC organized more than 40 webinars in various United Nations languages, with the combined participation of over 5000 experts. Besides, e-learning through CLP4NET, the Cyber Learning Platform for Network Education and Training, was encouraged.

As many countries are preparing for the second wave of the pandemic, the IAEA is working to develop a technical report on countries’ experience in maintaining safety, security and reliable operation during the COVID-19 pandemic, said Gustavo Caruso, Director of the Office of Safety and Security Coordination at the IAEA.

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