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The Hidden Nuclear Risk of the Pandemic

The coronavirus crisis highlights the resilience problem of civilian nuclear power plants.
April 27, 2020
The Hidden Nuclear Risk of the Pandemic
(Hannah Yoest / Shutterstock)

The coronavirus crisis has revealed a significant Achilles’ heel in civilian nuclear power: The plants can’t operate if their relatively few highly skilled operators get sick or become contagious and have to be quarantined, a situation that, according to news reports, some plants are getting close to. That puts a dent in nuclear-industry assertions that its plants provide a level of protection against natural events far beyond that of most other electricity suppliers.

The chief problem is one of public safety. Unlike other types of electric-generating plants, nuclear plants need operators to remain in control even after they are shut down because their radioactive uranium fuel cores, typically about 100 tons, continue to generate large amounts of heat. If the heat is not removed by cooling water, it can melt the core. During the 1979 Three Mile Island accident in Pennsylvania, over half the inadequately cooled core melted in hours.

In recent weeks, several vital institutions—police forces, food-processing plants, the U.S. Postal Service, not to mention health care providers—have reportedly been strained as personnel have become sick with COVID-19. As the pandemic spreads, it could create a problem for the smooth functioning of nuclear plants, as well. Just operating in safe shutdown state could be challenging. The details differ from plant to plant and are spelled out in technical specifications that are part of each plant’s federal license, but generally it takes a supervisor and several operators to man the control room and some number of maintenance staff. Altogether, counting all shifts, there may be a couple of dozen operators per plant. That doesn’t sound like much, but these are highly skilled personnel who are licensed to operate an individual plant. You can’t just pull in operators from elsewhere. If the licensed operators are unavailable because of disease or medical concerns, you are out of luck.

The operators would surely not abandon their plant so long as they could remain at their posts, but having a skeleton crew of sick and fatigued individuals operating a nuclear plant is, to say the least, not a desirable state of affairs.

A similar concern applies to the government safety regulators. At the Seabrook plant in New Hampshire, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission inspectors are doing most of their inspections over the phone from home. As one citizen oversight group remarked, while “understandable, it’s still a bit unsettling, considering we are talking about nuclear power.” A COVID-19-related notice on the NRC website states the commission “will require plants to shut down if they cannot appropriately staff their facilities,” but during a March 20 teleconference the NRC representative assured the industry that the agency was prepared to issue blanket exemptions from license requirements.

Operating a plant at power takes a lot more staff than maintaining it in safe shutdown state. Nuclear plant managements around the world have been forced to consider the consequences of coronavirus infections and the need to quarantine employees who have been in contact with infected people. The conclusions are stark. According to a Reuters report, EDF, the utility that runs all the nuclear plants in France, said its plants “could operate for three months with a 25% reduction in staffing levels and for two to three weeks with 40% fewer staff.” At one plant in the north of France, Flamanville, EDF announced it was reducing the staff at the plant from 800 to 100, keeping only those “in charge of safety and security.” There are reports that U.S. nuclear plants may ask essential staff to live on-site if the pandemic worsens, and plants have stockpiled bedding and ready-to-eat meals.

During this emergency, nuclear plant managers are doing their best to keep the lights on and the public safe. But the pandemic exposes a vulnerability of the nuclear plants that we will have to take account of in future decisions. One thing is clear: The picture painted by the trade association for the nuclear industry, the Nuclear Energy Institute, of the essential invulnerability of nuclear plants is not correct.

The Nuclear Energy Institute also argues that by contributing reliable power to military installations, nuclear energy “supports the nation’s ability to defend itself.” Yet here we have a type of emergency—involving a possible lack of operating staff—in which the nuclear plants could become a serious liability rather than an asset.

Nuclear plants are not without their advantages. But they also come with serious disadvantages, one of which—the safety imperative for constant, highly trained staffing no matter what—has become evident during the current pandemic. They are an inflexible source of energy that carries an enormous overhead in terms of safety and security, when what we need in our energy system for dealing with inevitable emergencies is not rigidity, but resilience.

Victor Gilinsky and Henry Sokolski

Victor Gilinsky is program advisor for the Nonproliferation Policy Education Center (NPEC) in Arlington, Virginia. He served on the Nuclear Regulatory Commission under Presidents Ford, Carter, and Reagan. Henry Sokolski is executive director of NPEC and the author, most recently, of Underestimated: Our Not So Peaceful Nuclear Future. He served as deputy for nonproliferation policy in the office of the U.S. secretary of defense during the George H.W. Bush administration.