Maintaining Nuclear Safety and Security During the COVID-19 Crisis

April 16, 2020
William Tobey, Simon Saradzhyan and Nickolas Roth

Every major industry on earth is struggling to adapt in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic. This includes nuclear facilities and nuclear-powered vessels, which count among the critical infrastructure of dozens of nations now struggling with the pandemic, representing more than half the world’s population. Meanwhile, ISIS has already announced its intent to exploit the pandemic while a number of other violent extremist organizations are also taking pains to exploit the crisis. Without implementing extraordinary measures to maintain safety and security, nuclear installations risk compounding the crisis with a large-scale radiation release. 

How are nuclear organizations coping with the COVID-19 crisis and what strategies seem to be among the best practices to ensure the safety and security of their operations? Responses have varied around the world, and we are still in the early days of the crisis, but already some lessons may be inferred. Moreover, nuclear power plants are only one realm of nuclear activity, which also includes fuel and waste production and disposal, as well as weapons establishments.

The possibility that a pandemic might threaten the continuity of nuclear power operations is long known. Based on his industry experience, Roger Howsley, executive director of the World Institute for Nuclear Security, observes that “[E]pidemics are usually covered in emergency planning arrangements, but probably nothing on this scale.” Indeed, the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) held a workshop on “Sustaining Safe Nuclear Operations in an Influenza Pandemic” in April 2006, which apparently prompted the Nuclear Energy Institute (NEI) to submit a draft pandemic contingency plan. (Unfortunately, according to Edwin Lyman, “Although the NRC and NEI continued to discuss these issues more than a decade ago, there they had disagreements that were never resolved.”). Russia’s state nuclear corporation, Rosatom, also maintains that it, “always had contingency plans for any kind of emergency situations, including those related to the health of our employees.” Rosatom did not disclose details of this plan, but, judging by its recent actions, the plan could include regular health check-ups of nuclear power plant (NPP) personnel, arranging for as many employees as possible to work remotely and consistently disinfecting facilities.

All 30 countries with operational nuclear power plants and the nine states believed to have nuclear weapons (seven have both) face COVID-19 outbreaks within their territories. North Korea’s denials of COVID-19 cases appear to be about as credible as Pyongyang’s earlier denial of its nuclear weapons program. Moreover, nuclear establishments are directly affected as both civilian and military employees of these establishments, such as operators of Russian NPPs and sailors aboard the nuclear-powered USS Theodore Roosevelt, have tested positive for COVID-19.

There are several lines of action that nuclear operators and regulators can take to mitigate safety and security risks posed by the coronavirus.

First, nuclear facilities can implement protective measures as recommended by public health experts more broadly.

These include: working from home; testing employees for COVID-19; use of personal protection equipment, such as masks; hand washing; distancing at work stations; temperature checks for those entering facilities; liberal sick leave; etc. 

For example, Rosatom reports that it has deployed “protective equipment and hygiene-related products.” It also notes that it has “arranged for many employees to work from home and purchased personal protective equipment and hygiene-related products in bulk; we are constantly disinfecting our production facilities and vehicles and have essentially cancelled all business trips."

Duke Energy, a large U.S. nuclear power operator, reports taking steps such as, “social distancing, a no-visitor policy, increased cleaning at plants and use of screening measures before employees enter facilities. Duke has also directed employees who are not involved with power generation or other critical functions to work from home.”

At France’s EDF utility, several workers exercised their right under French law to walk off the job when facing what they deem to be unsafe conditions, because they feared that the personal radiation monitoring portals could become contaminated. In response, EDF instituted new rules regarding more frequent cleaning and wider spacing of personnel passing through the equipment.  The utility also estimates that it could “operate for three months with a 25 percent reduction in staffing levels, and for two or three weeks with 40 percent fewer staff.”

U.S., U.K. and Russian nuclear regulators are reportedly working from home in greater numbers, although some also remain at regulated sites. The Savannah River Site in the U.S., which houses tons of plutonium, has limited itself to “essential mission-critical operations only,” which reduces its on-site work force from 10,000 to 2,500.   

Second, nuclear enterprises can shut down or significantly reduce non-essential operations. 

Many have already done so. While reliable electricity production can only be interrupted in extreme circumstances, fuel cycle activities affecting nuclear materials before and after they are used in a reactor can be stopped more easily. In Canada, Cameco has suspended mining and Orono halted milling of uranium ore from Cigar Lake. Kazakhstan is preparing to make use of existing stocks to meet uranium demands. South Africa and Namibia have halted all mining, including for uranium. In the United Kingdom and France, the Sellafield and La Hague reprocessing plants are shut down. The Waste Isolation Pilot Plant in the United States reduced the amount of waste it is receiving and placing underground.

Third, nuclear sites can delay labor- and time-intensive operations.

Nuclear power plants are advantaged over coal-fired operations because instead of requiring a steady stream of fuel, they generally need refueling about every two years, usually in the spring or fall, when in many Western countries electricity demand is diminished.  The United States is in peak nuclear power plant refueling season. Such operations require many outside specialists to travel to and enter a plant, using transportation, hotels and restaurants for over a month, all of which are discouraged. 

There are several indications that discretionary maintenance will be deferred. U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission staff are reportedly considering issuing temporary waivers for some requirements, such as refueling-related inspections. EDF announced that its 2021 output would be affected by a revised outage schedule, and refueling outages in Spain are postponed. Moreover, Bruce Power in Canada has narrowed reactor life-extension tasks to focus on Cobalt-60 production (which can be used to sterilize medical equipment and is thus is part of the fight against COVID-19).

Fourth, regulators can temporarily ease some regulatory controls as long as doing so does not affect safety.

For example, as a provision against the contingency of a worker shortage, the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission eased restrictions on the number of hours plant workers can be on the job. These deferrals must be weighed against any increased risk that they might pose to operational safety and security.

Fifth, nuclear establishments can quarantine or isolate essential workers.

Enterprises in Russia, the United States, Ukraine and France are doing just that. 

Ukraine’s Energoatom, which operates the country’s four NPPs, chose not to wait for any of its employees to be diagnosed with the virus. It issued an order on March 25 to house core operational personnel in separate rooms within specially appointed hotels, where all the necessary measures for disinfection and medical monitoring are being carried out.

After a technician at Russia’s Beloyarskaya NPP and his wife were diagnosed with the virus, the management followed Energoatom’s suit and re-housed key operations personnel from their apartments to a sanatorium, where they are monitored by medics bused to and from the plant. Following that case, Andrei Petrov, director general of Rosenergoatom, the subsidiary that operates all Russian nuclear power plants, ordered on April 3 that this system be replicated at the other 10 plants, including on a floating NPP. Among other things, Petrov ordered that personnel be isolated, “which ensures the continuity of production processes and works, as well as reserve shifts,” at sanatoriums with “separate accommodation, meals, leisure and constant medical control organized for them.” The critical personnel are to be transported to and from work in designated vehicles, which are regularly disinfected, according to Petrov’s order. While the order introduced much-needed preventive measures, they did not keep three employees of the Kurskaya NPP from being infected and then diagnosed with the virus in the second week of April.

In addition to isolating key NPP personnel, Russian authorities have also restricted travel to the so-called towns where these workers normally live. Such restrictions have been introduced at the towns of Zarechny and Kurchatov, where the Beloyarskaya NPP and Kurskaya NPPs are located. At least three of the other closed towns that host Rosatom facilities have reportedly also introduced such restrictions: Novouralsk, Snezhinsk and Trekhgorny. (Snezhinsk hosts an institute involved in the development of nuclear weapons. Novouralsk houses a uranium enrichment facility and Trekhgorny has a nuclear warhead assembly/disassembly facility).

To further limit potential exposure, both Rosenergoatom and its parent company, Rosatom, has sent many of its non-core personnel home, asking them to work remotely. Rosatom created 3,500 remote-working jobs within days, Rosatom Director General Alexey Likhachev said in an address on April 4. While Likhachev asserted in a statement on the pandemic that “safety is Rosatom’s key value,” he did not specify, however, how Rosatom is working to prevent the pandemic from impacting nuclear security. 

As for other Russian organizations involved in ensuring and/or monitoring nuclear safety and security, the Ministry of Defense (MOD), National Guard (Rosgvardia), Federal Security Service (FSB) and Federal Environmental, Industrial and Nuclear Supervision Service (Rostekhnadzor)  have all taken measures to shield their personnel from the virus. At the same time, however, MOD did not postpone its spring draft, which started on April 1. Moreover, none of the aforementioned agencies have released any information on whether and how many of its personnel may have been tested or diagnosed with the coronavirus. However, on April 14, Russian news outlet Kommersant reported that at least three Russian military servicemen had been diagnosed with the virus by March 30. The three included a colonel in the Moscow area and a midshipman in the Northern Fleet, which operates the largest number of nuclear-powered submarines in the Russian navy, according to Kommersant. Additionally, the crew of one of that fleet’s nuclear submarines was placed in quarantine in March after commanders found that some crew members had been in contact with a civilian servicing specialist who had been on a plane with an infected person, according to Russia’s RBK agency.

In the United States, Maria Korsnick, president of the Nuclear Energy Institute, said some reactor operators are “considering measures to isolate a core group to run the plant, stockpiling ready-to-eat meals and disposable tableware, laundry supplies and personal care items.” For example, at the Diablo Canyon Power Plant, which had a pandemic response plan, separate rotating shifts have been established to ensure that if one group is infected, another one can take over. NRC’s page on the outbreak says measures taken include deferring most travel and inspections conducted by region-based inspectors; communicating with nuclear plants to discuss current activities and future plans, including plant staffing, reactor control room operator licensing and reductions in non-essential maintenance work. Measures also include preparing to resume force-on-force security inspections in June.

In France, Orono, which has not reported a COVID-19 case among its personnel as of April 1, has as a back-up set up a group of reserve personnel that does not meet with other teams. At the same time, France’s EDF is introducing stricter hygiene procedures at its nuclear power plants after the aforementioned walkout of several workers, according to Neimagazine. Additionally, all 1,700 crew members of the nuclear-powered aircraft carrier, the Charles de Gaulle, have been quarantined because of a COVID-19 outbreak on-board.

Sixth, like other elements of critical infrastructure, nuclear enterprises are ramping up their cyber defenses to meet an increased threat.

According to one nuclear security manager, “Hackers and criminals are unscrupulous and would take advantage of the relatively fragile situation of companies.” Martin Smith of the Security Awareness Special Interest Group, a forum for frontline security professionals in various industries, reports that, “Many of our members have highlighted the massive increase in phishing attacks and online scams that have bubble[d] up since [the COVID-19 crisis] started.” These problems are compounded by remote work policies that may compromise cyber-security measures. 

Seventh, nuclear operators can share what they are learning about how to cope with the impacts of COVID-19.

While some nuclear facilities have plans in place in case of a pandemic, the length of this international crisis may strain any existing plans. Information sharing can be a critical tool to help operators cope with current challenges and the challenges ahead. According to Peter Tarren, head of the International Atomic Energy Agency’s (IAEA) Operational Safety Section, “The IAEA is gathering feedback from operating countries about how they are ensuring that enough personnel are available to keep power plants operating safely and securely.” The IAEA has several reporting systems in place for helping nuclear facilities share information about safety-related events: the International Reporting System for Operating Experience, the Fuel Incident Notification and Analysis System and the Incident Reporting System for Research Reactors. The IAEA has also established a “COVID-19 Operational Experience Network” to support sharing of information on how the virus is impacting power plant performance and what mitigation measures are being taken. If they do not already, these systems should include lessons learned about how nuclear facilities are maintaining their security operations.

We likely won't know the full impact of COVID-19 on nuclear safety and security for a long time, if ever. In Russia and the United States, there is anecdotal evidence that personnel within organizations responsible for nuclear safety and security have been impacted. In the United States, employees at Y-12 and Pantex, the locations with the most weapons-usable nuclear material in the United States, have tested positive. In Russia, as detailed above, the crew of a Northern Fleet nuclear submarine was reportedly quarantined after coming in contact with someone who’d flown with an infected person, according to Russia’s RBK agency. It was not until the crew tested negative for the virus twice that the submariners were allowed to leave quarantine.

In the face of this global crisis, nuclear enterprises worldwide are taking active steps to ensure that they can maintain safety and security. Many had planned against the possibility of an epidemic, but very likely the scale and severity of the current crisis are beyond what was imagined. As plants defer refueling, power output will be diminished, although demand has, too. Many plants can operate for weeks with a diminished workforce, but longer strictures will likely force closures. Some steps that have been taken are clearly sensible, but it is too early to tell how well nuclear safety and security systems are holding up under the stress of the COVID-19 crisis.

It can be said, however, that the following steps taken by some of the national operators of nuclear facilities in individual countries should be replicated to increase chances that the aforementioned systems withstand the stress of the crisis. For instance, we think it would be feasible to replicate Rosenergoatom’s, Energoatom’s and other NPP operators’ steps to isolate core NPP personnel. We also think that these steps should be replicated by civilian and military agencies that operate other types of reactors, such as research reactors and power units of surface vessels and submarines. We also believe that the units and civilian organizations that operate all types of nuclear reactors, be it electricity generators or research reactors or propulsion units, should also draw contingency plans, if they have not already done so, for scenarios in which the number of healthy operational personnel falls below levels that allow for safe operations.

We also believe that the agencies responsible for ensuring nuclear security should have contingency plans to make sure that units involved in ensuring adequate levels of nuclear security remain adequately staffed to foil any attacks by non-state actors, such as the Islamic State, that may want to exploit the disruptions caused by the virus to try to stage catastrophic attacks. In fact, as early as in mid-March ISIS reportedly began urging its followers to exploit disruptions caused by the virus in various countries to stage attacks. A month later four suspected members of an Islamic State cell were arrested in Germany. The four Tajik nationals, whom German law-enforcement took into custody on April 15, are accused of plotting to attack U.S. military bases in the country—one of which has nuclear weapons. In contrast to ISIS, al-Qaeda has so far refrained from urging its followers to seize on turmoil created by the pandemic to stage attacks, but it did seek to highlight flaws in the Western governments’ response to the crisis and to urge citizens of these countries to convert to Islam. Some Western white supremacist organizations have also not hesitated to exploit the crisis. Last month, the FBI told police agencies in New York that white supremacists intended to spray Jews and police officers with virus-infected bodily fluids, while New Jersey’s Office of Homeland Security and Preparedness warned that a neo-Nazi media group had encouraged supporters “to incite panic while people are practicing social isolation during the COVID-19 outbreak, which includes discharging firearms in cities and putting bullet-sized holes into car windows,” according to a report in The Washington Post.

As detailed above, the nuclear establishments of countries across the world are acting to maintain safety and security while providing power to vital operations during the COVID-19 crisis. Many had planned against the possibility of an epidemic, but very likely the severity of the current crisis is beyond what was imagined. Some of the steps that they have been taken and that we describe are sensible, but more can and should be done: nuclear enterprises need to share information, learn quickly and adapt over the course of the crisis.


William Tobey

William Tobey is a senior fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs and director of the U.S.-Russia Initiative to Prevent Nuclear Terrorism. Mr. Tobey was Deputy Administrator for Defense Nuclear Nonproliferation at the National Nuclear Security Administration from 2006-2009.


Simon Saradzhyan

Simon Saradzhyan is the founding director of the Russia Matters project at the Harvard Kennedy School’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs. Prior to joining the center in 2008, Saradzhyan had worked as a researcher and journalist in the former Soviet Union for 15 years.


Nickolas Roth

Nickolas Roth is director of the Stimson Center’s Nuclear Security Program. Prior to joining the Stimson Center, Roth was a senior research associate at the Project on Managing the Atom at the Harvard Kennedy School’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs. His work has focused on nuclear security, U.S. nuclear weapons policy and arms control.

This issue brief is a product of the Belfer Center’s Russia Matters project, the U.S.-Russia Initiative to Prevent Nuclear Terrorism (IPNT) and the Stimson Center’s Nuclear Security Program. It is an expanded version of a commentary published by the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, "How to keep nuclear power plants operating safely during the coronavirus pandemic." 

Photo in the public domain.