Covid-19 spread shows up vulnerability at heart of nuclear programmes, with resilience of UK critical national infrastructures undermined. The coronavirus’ effects act as threat multiplier, as David Lowry explains.
First indications that the dreaded coronavirus had penetrated the very heart of the UK nuclear sector came in on 15 March when Sellafield Ltd confirmed that a worker at the vast nuclear waste management complex – employing 13,000 workers – had tested positive for Covid19. One of their officials commented:
“We are in contact with Public Health England and are following their advice to protect our employees and partners, while maintaining our focus on the safety and security of the Sellafield site.”
Two weeks later, the trades union Unite threatened to take legal action against Mitie, the company employing staff such as cleaners and security workers at the Sellafield, It said the firm was “failing” to follow government guidelines, and is putting staff in “imminent and serious danger”.
Mitie denied the allegations. Unite said it had asked for risk assessments to be carried out for each building people were working in but had not received a response.
On 23 March, the Sellafield management announced that site would be “paused” for 48 hours, to plan changes to work patterns and welfare provisions. On the same day, it was announced that the French equivalent to Sellafield, the giant nuclear complex (“Usine) of La Hague, had begun its own phase down.
I asked the UK nuclear regulator what proportion of Office for Nuclear Regulation (ONR) staff being forced into simultaneous self-isolation would trigger a crisis that would not allow nuclear safety and security regulatory oversight to continue effectively across the UK? And, if this situation arose, what executive regulatory decision would be required if all operating nuclear facilities could no longer be simultaneously regulated to a legal standard?
ONR responded, including the following thus:
“All civil nuclear sites have minimum staffing levels, and contingency plans should they fall below these levels, to enable them to remain in control of activities that could impact on nuclear safety under all foreseeable circumstances throughout the life cycle of the facility.
In addition, licensees need minimum staffing levels to comply with their on-site and off-site emergency plans.
Staff rotas at nuclear sites are resilient to keep generation running in scenarios including pandemic or industrial action. If a generating site needed to be shut down for any reason, it would be shut down safely.”
The Hinkley case
Local group, the Stop Hinkley (SH) campaign, loudly announced that it was horrified that the 4,000-strong workforce at the HPC construction site was set to continue working during the Coronavirus ‘lockdown’ effecting the rest of the UK. SH spokesperson Katy Attwater said:
“This is putting lives at risk right across Somerset and the whole of the country. Why hasn’t the Prime Minister ordered them to stay at home – is he just pandering to the nuclear lobby?”
HP owner, French–state owned EDF Energy, said it was taking “extra steps” to safeguard the health of workers, planning body temperature checks on all workers entering the site, and has banned handshakes and agreed to halve the number of people travelling on each bus.
EDF announced on 24 March it was reducing the workforce at Hinkley Point C by more than half. The reduction was aimed, EDF said, at allowing easier social distancing in operational areas and sites such as canteens.
The French connection
In the meantime, EDF had effectively closed down building work at its controversial Flamanville nuclear plant (under construction) near to the La Hague radioactive waste processing plant, because the fear of the spread of Covid-19.
On 26 March, the French nuclear safety authority (ASN) suspended on-site safety inspections at French nuclear power plants due to the coronavirus.
Back across the water, despite what EDF said, on 25 March, the Daily Mail national newspaper printed a photograph whose caption stated it was taken in the workers’ canteen at Hinkley Point. Dinners are packed together, with absolutely no spacing.
The local on-line news series reported that EDF “has obviously taken measures to try to ensure social distancing between workers, placing plastic bags over every other seat to keep people apart from each other during the Coronavirus crisis.”
However, a plant insider questioned whether it is enough to keep the workers the recommended two metres apart, saying: “They’ve done their best, but when anybody moves, they’re inevitably immediately within two metres of someone else…It’s a bit scary…”
The chief nuclear inspector, Mark Foy, commented:
“We are aware of the situation at Hinkley Point C where the licensee is in the process of implementing major reductions in the number of people on the site. It is managing this in a staged and controlled manner, to ensure the works are made safe before each of the numerous work faces is closed down.”
But, despite a decision by EDF to reduce its Hinkley C workforce, local residents still complained that while they were in lockdown, HPC construction workers could ‘come and go as they wish’. “People are very scared and concerned,” said Cllr Chris Morgan, chairman of Stogursey Parish Council “.
Then, early morning of 31 March, the UK nuclear regulator (ONR) issued a bland statement on Covid-19, following five days of solid lobbying by the local and national anti-nuclear groups over the continued construction at Hinkley C.
Here are some extracts:
ONR is “(…) continuing to protect society by securing safe nuclear operations during the COVID-19 pandemic.” (…) “A limited number of our inspectors can, as key workers, continue to travel to site as necessary to conduct urgent and essential regulatory inspections.”
In Pandemic 1918, published in 2018, its author Catharine Arnold draws some parallels across the century since the catastrophic influenza contagion that killed an extraordinary 100 million victims, pointing out that the threat of a pandemic flu is as severe as that of a terrorist attack, and added:
“According to Professor Oxford, the impact of a flu pandemic in Great Britain would be the equivalent of blowing up a nuclear power station.”
And so the pandemic threat and the nuclear threat extraordinarily come together.