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Resilience of Nuclear Power During COVID-19 Pandemic Highlighted at the Annual Forum of the International Nuclear Safety Group

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Recently during the Covid-19 period, an Integrated Safety Assessment of Research Reactors (INSARR) mission took place to the LVR-15 Research Reactor in the Czech Republic. (Photo: Research Centre Řež )

More than 100 delegates from 40 organizations addressed the impact of COVID-19 on the operations of nuclear installations, operational safety, radiation protection and emergency preparedness at an event during the 64th IAEA General Conference. The discussion took place in the context of the annual forum of the International Nuclear Safety Group (INSAG), a group of high-level experts from all over the world that provides advice on safety issues, including to the IAEA.

Following introductions from Basma Shalaby, Chairperson of this year’s Forum and former President of the University Network of Excellence in Nuclear Engineering in Canada, deliberations focused on the implications of the Covid-19 pandemic and covered the importance of business continuity, resilience and information exchange during this unprecedented period in global history.

“The adaptation in our working methods is an extraordinary response to successfully tackle the unprecedented situation confronting us all. INSAG’s experience, insights and advice have always been of great value,” said Juan Carlos Lentijo, IAEA Deputy Director General and Head of the Department of Nuclear Safety and Security.

Delegates discussed how already existing pandemic plans were implemented to ensure safety and security at nuclear facilities. They highlighted the IAEA’s efforts to enhance its support to its Members States through rapid mobilization, identification of challenges and facilitation of information exchange in nuclear safety and security during this period. Participants reflected on the importance of the IAEA guidance shared in the areas of human resources, physical restrictions and distancing rules with potential impact on nuclear and radiation facilities, their ongoing business, their construction and emergency preparedness.

Participants provided information on how they implemented mitigation measures, including quarantine of new workers, temporarily halting construction work at nuclear power plants, operating with reduced workforce and carrying out standard operating procedures to minimize COVID-19’s impact. They discussed social distancing and personal hygiene measures, tracking the health of workers, prioritization of tasks, identification of essential staff, provision of physical protection of equipment, temperature screening, contact tracing from start of the pandemic, as well as proactively increased communication with staff, external stakeholders and the host communities during this unprecedented time.

In his remarks, Shridhar Chande, an INSAG member and retired Vice Chairman of the Atomic Energy Regulatory Board of India, said that during the COVID-19 pandemic “as reported by the IAEA and also mentioned in the INSAG letter, the nuclear facilities […] around the world have managed to keep operating safely, providing much needed electric power.”

Ansar Parvez, former Chairman of the Pakistan Atomic Energy Commission, emphasized the importance of developing contingency plans in dialogue with the staff involved. “It is very important to win the cooperation of staff,” he said.  

Lasse Reiman, who retired from the Finnish Radiation and Nuclear Safety Authority in 2015, said that “a state of emergency was declared due to the covid-19 pandemic on 16 March 2020. Restrictive measures were introduced, and recommendations issued, which were effective in curbing the epidemic and protecting risks groups.” He also described the type of inspections being performed remotely, as it was not possible to postpone them at plant sites in Finland. He added that a “the normal functions of the organization were being implemented in abnormal times.”

When plants operate with reduced staffing, vigilance in nuclear security is particularly important, said Bismark Tyobeka, CEO of the South African National Nuclear Regulator. “Regulatory diligence must be maintained to ensure a high level of safety at facilities by ensuring business continuity of the regulatory body, but attention also needs to be paid to nuclear security objectives under pandemic conditions to acts of sabotage, theft and vandalism,” he said.

During his presentation, Gustavo Caruso, Head of the Office of Safety and Security Coordination at the IAEA, said that the nuclear industry has always learned and improved, and was well prepared for external events such as a pandemic. “Events of the past have shaped legal instruments and improved resilience. The IAEA has made continuous efforts to facilitate the exchange of information, to share experiences and offer appropriate support,” he said.

Lentijo, in his closing remarks, said that the Forum had reflected on experiences from around the world and he “intend[s] to analyze these experiences in order to learn for the future and this learning will not only be for future pandemics but also for the remainder of the current pandemic.”

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