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Coronovirus pandemic could cripple the nuclear industry

By Noel Wauchope - posted Thursday, 26 March 2020


Nuclear power facilities have this one problem that is unique to the nuclear industry, and that is, the need for exceptional security. No other industry has these risks of radioactive accident and special vulnerability to terrorism. The IAEA defines nuclear security as:

The prevention and detection of and response to, theft, sabotage, unauthorized access, illegal transfer or other malicious acts involving nuclear material, other radioactive substances or their associated facilities.

According to Mycle Schneider, in the World Nuclear Status Report , reactor safety depends above all on a:

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...'culture of security', including the quality of maintenance and training, the competence of the operator and the workforce, and the rigour of regulatory oversight. So a better-designed, newer reactor is not always a safer one.

Experts say that the

...largest single internal factor determining the safety of a nuclear plant is the culture of security among regulators, operators and the workforce - and creating such a culture is not easy.

This security risk brings with it, the need for a very high level of secrecy. From its inception in the Manhattan Project in 1942, workers were under strict rules of secrecy, and 'compartmentalization', whereby the knowledge of different aspects of nuclear production was divided and separated. This system continues today under the Department of Energy. Huge numbers of classified documents are kept in US government vaults. In the UK, under the Official Secrets Act, information on nuclear production is guarded. Because of governmental and corporate secrecy, as well as a management culture which sometimes discourages proper documentation, information about the processes of nuclear power production is not easily shared.

There was already a shortage of skilled nuclear workers, even before COVID19 hit the world. The most recent Global Energy Talent Index (GETI) reports "an acute need for talent" in the nuclear sector. Nuclear professionals are an aging group, with a "vast wave of imminent retirements." The onslaught of the pandemic could mean some shortages of well-informed, capable professionals working at nuclear reactors, and at other nuclear facilities, such as waste management and transport. And there's that even more secretive area, nuclear weapons production and management.

Of course, there's that whole other workforce - the nuclear security officers, whose job is just as critical as that of the physicists and engineers. There's quite a history of anti- nuclear activists breaking into nuclear facilities in order to demonstrate their vulnerability to terrorist attacks..

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The nuclear industry is well aware of the pandemic's threats. And indeed, the evidence is here already. Charles Digges, in Bellona, reports:

As the Covid-19 virus grinds world economies to a halt, several national nuclear operators are weighing how to keep sensitive and vulnerable infrastructure chugging along in the face of staff shortages due to the illness.

French nuclear workers are in fear of coronavirus infection. 1000 staff at Sellafield nuclear facility are self-isolating amid the pandemic. Britain's Trident nuclear submarine base is in the grip of a Coronavirus scare. In USA, the long-drawn out construction of nuclear Plant Vogtle is being further delayed, as more workers are being tested for the virus.

The pandemic is sure to have a delaying impact on nuclear construction, including in theSmall Nuclear Reactor sector, which is still pretty much in the blueprint stage, anyway.

The nuclear lobby is of course, fighting to win hearts and minds, with some persuasive propaganda. Their theme is the value of nuclear research reactors in industry and health, and especially in the detection of viruses. And they do have a point. Still radionuclides are being produced by non-nuclear means. The role of small nuclear research reactors is increasingly looking like the fig leaf on an unsustainable and super-expensive nuclear power industry.

In the meantime, as trade and industry slow down, with the global march of this pandemic, the nuclear industry is already suffering a set-back. The loss of well-informed staff, whether in the professional area, or at lower levels in the workforce hierarchy, poses a special problem for this industry, with its secretive culture. Nuclear power has a unique safety requirement, meaning that its reactors may need to be shut down, or at least, have their operations cut back.

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About the Author

Noel Wauchope taught science before switching to nursing. She has several post-graduate qualifications, in health informatics, medical terminology and clinical coding. She is a long time anti-nuclear activist.

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Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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