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Nuclear Power Operators Use Remote Assessments to Overcome Pandemic Mobility Restrictions

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The Olkiluoto Nuclear Power Plant in Eurajoki, Finland. (Photo: TVO)

Nuclear power plant operators are carrying out remote quality and safety related assessments of systems, structures and components (SSC) to overcome physical distancing and mobility restrictions during the global pandemic, participants in a recent IAEA webinar said.

The pandemic has tested the resilience of the nuclear power industry and sparked the development of innovative solutions to a range of challenges, including to the supply chain of goods and services such as assessments of SSC and suppliers. In order to continuously generate a stable supply of low carbon electricity, nuclear power plant SSC must be regularly monitored, replaced and have their quality verified, both at the manufacturing site and at the plant. But limitations such as reduced on-site staffing and travel restrictions have forced both operators and suppliers to rethink their practices.

During the Webinar on COVID-19 and Its Impact on the Nuclear Power Supply Chain on 9 July, which was attended by 155 people from 52 countries, speakers from Russia and the United States discussed how their organizations met these challenges, including by carrying out remote assessments. A third speaker, Mikko Kosonen of Finland’s TVO, which operates the Olkiluoto Nuclear Power Plant, spoke about how his company successfully carried out the annual refuelling outages despite the travel restrictions on the workforce, the need to postpone some refurbishment projects and the necessity to adjust the outage schedules.

Marc Tannenbaum, a senior technical executive at the Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI) in the United States, talked about issues experienced by US nuclear power plant (NPP) operators as a result of the pandemic, including inability to perform source verification for critical items from suppliers due to travel restrictions and stay-at-home orders. Source verification refers to the process of assessing the quality of NPP components and ensuring that they meet regulatory standards.

“Overcoming supply chain challenges was an important aspect of minimizing the impact of the pandemic. One of the issues NPPs in the US sought to address at the outset of the crisis was determining if source verification of NPP components could be conducted using remote technologies when it is not possible to perform verification in-person at the supplier’s facility,” Tannenbaum said. “EPRI assembled a team of experts to quickly prepare and publish guidance on remote source verification that includes screening criteria to determine eligibility for remote source verification and process guidance for performing remote source verification using technology solutions. The US Nuclear Regulatory Commission is currently in the process of reviewing this guidance for formal approval.”

Remote source verification involves using technology including cameras and microphones to inspect, at the point of origin, NPP items which typically have attributes which make them difficult to inspect after delivery and/or have a relatively high degree of complexity. In some cases, source verification is used to oversee critical manufacturing steps or processes. Traditionally, qualified personnel carry out such verifications on site, including checking an item’s documentation and the nature of its fabrication procedures.

“Operators have shown dynamism in mitigating the impact of COVID-19 on their operations, including by minimizing impacts to their respective supply chains,” said Pekka Pyy, an IAEA senior expert in organization and management systems and moderator of the webinar. “The flexibility and responsiveness they continue to show is an asset for the future of nuclear power, particularly as the world may face similar challenges again in the future.”

Leonid Letchford, Head of the Quality Management Department at Russia’s State Atomic Energy Corporation (Rosatom), told participants that no major supply chain disruptions at the organizational, end user and regulator levels were encountered. He also reported that there were no major delays at Rosatom’s construction sites and that a Finnish Radiation and Nuclear Safety Authority (STUK) inspection of the Hanhikivi nuclear power plant project in Finland was carried out remotely. RAOS Project Oy, a subsidiary of Rosatom, is the main contractor for the plant project.

In a remote inspection conducted from 20 to 22 April, STUK said it was able to assess the effectiveness of the project and quality management processes of the main contractor and confirm whether appropriate national regulatory requirements were being followed.

“Remote inspections have proven invaluable during COVID-19, and it will be important to expand this capability for better preparedness in the future,” said Letchford. “Developing guidelines for remote inspection parameters and acceptance criteria as well as changes in how we perceive the results of remote inspections in a legal sense will be vital moving forward.” Lean production techniques and limited personnel access were also critical for business continuity, he added.

The webinar, a recording of which can be viewed here, was funded by the United States via the IAEA’s Peaceful Uses Initiative (PUI), a mechanism for supporting unfunded projects of the IAEA. The webinar is part of a variety of webinars offered by the IAEA in the area of nuclear energy.

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