Securing Nuclear Facilities in a Time of COVID-19

COVID-19 is decimating families, communities, economies, and, if not managed properly could, potentially undermine security at nuclear sites around the globe.
By Nickolas Roth Author

COVID-19 is decimating families, communities, economies, and, if not managed properly could, potentially undermine security at nuclear facilities around the globe. All of the countries with major nuclear facilities are facing outbreaks. Many nuclear operators have contingency plans for pandemics, but the nature and duration of this novel coronavirus is likely to challenge even the best plans. How will nuclear operators maintain strong and sustainable security during this time? 

There is already evidence that nuclear facilities have been directly affected by the virus. The Exelon Corporation, which operates the largest number of reactors in the United States, has said it “can no longer meet the work-hour controls” at four of its reactors and is requiring nuclear plant workers to work 12-hour days for two continuous weeks. Additionally, employees at the Savannah River site, Y-12, and Pantex nuclear facilities in the United States, which all have large quantities of weapons-useable nuclear materials, have been infected. In Russia, at least one employee of Rosatom, the state nuclear energy corporation, has tested positive. On the USS Theodore Roosevelt, where an outbreak crippled operations, the first to be infected were crewmen responsible for operating the nuclear reactor that powers the ship. 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.

Operators, regulators, and international organizations are already responding by adopting a range of mitigation strategies to protect staff and maintain security at nuclear sites. Nuclear facilities are implementing measures to protect staff from infection similar to those being adopted by other industries. Some nuclear businesses are shutting down or significantly ramping down their operations. U.S. nuclear regulators are easing restrictions, like the number of hours employees can work. The International Atomic Energy Agency has established a “COVID-19 Operational Experience Network” to facilitate information sharing about how nuclear plant operators are being impacted and how they are responding.

While it is unclear exactly how COVID-19 is impacting security at nuclear sites, it is possible operators could be facing an increased threat. The Islamic State, which has demonstrated an interest in nuclear terrorism, has encouraged followers to exploit the chaos caused by COVID-19. Islamic State operatives were arrested in April for targeting U.S. military bases in Germany. This is not the first time nuclear operators have thought about how to cope with extreme events. Following the Fukushima crisis in 2011, the National Academy of Sciences recommended that security personnel at nuclear facilities be trained “with extreme external events and severe accidents,” including “diverse and flexible approaches for coping with and reconstituting plant security infrastructure, systems, and staffing.” While the coronavirus is significantly less severe than the tsunami that devastated the Fukushima Daiichi powerplant so far, it is challenging in different ways. Unlike Fukushima Daiichi, many nuclear facilities will be expected to continue operations, despite potential impacts on staffing. At the same time, the comparatively slow-moving nature of this pandemic allows operators to establish and strengthen contingency plans as they move forward. If, however, nuclear operators around the world are unable to adapt to the current crisis in a sustainable way, the combination of diminished security and heightened terrorism threats could mean are we heading into a period of increased nuclear terrorism risks.

This commentary draws upon findings and recommendations from an article originally published on Russia Matters, Maintaining Nuclear Safety and Security During the COVID-19 Crisis by William Tobey, Simon Saradzhyan, and Nickolas Roth.

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