Global nuclear industry responds to COVID-19 pandemic

Our pick of the latest nuclear power news you need to know

The World Health Organization characterized COVID-19 as a pandemic March 11

Industry has responded swiftly to COVID-19, says WNA Director

The nuclear power industry, with a strong safety culture and well-established emergency preparedness protocols, has responded swiftly to the disruptions caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, World Nuclear Association Director General Agneta wrote in an open letter. 

Plant operators have begun to stagger shifts, increase hygiene procedures and made changes to enable social distancing while ensuring that nuclear energy continues to be a crucial source of electricity generation 24/7, she wrote March 27.

“Companies have implemented business continuity plans and prepared for the impacts of the response to the virus,” she said. 

The International Atomic Energy Agency was providing diagnostic kits, equipment and training in nuclear-derived detection techniques to countries asking for assistance, while in Canada Bruce Power was streamlining work to extend the life of the Bruce nuclear plant to focus on supplying Ontario with a reliable electricity source and maintaining the supply of cobalt-60 for medical sterilization, she noted. 

Meanwhile, nuclear plant operators have maintained pandemic preparedness plans and procedures since 2006, with guidance revised in 2019 to align with recommended actions from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the World Health Organization (WHO), President and CEO of Nuclear Energy Institute Maria Korsnick said in a statement March 24. 

“At this time, all of our members have activated their pandemic plans. We are holding regular calls with utilities, suppliers and NRC senior management to communicate, collaborate and share best practices,” Korsnick said. 

Cameco suspends production at Cigar Lake uranium mine due to COVID-19

Cameco temporarily suspended production at its Cigar Lake uranium mine in northern Saskatchewan, Canada, and placed the facility in safe care and maintenance mode due to the threat posed by the COVID-19 pandemic, the company announced March 23. 

Cigar Lake is the world’s largest operating U3O8 mine, represents 13% of global mine supply and 10% of total supply including secondary material. 

“In the face of great uncertainty, our first priority is to protect the health and well-being of our employees, their families and their communities,” Cameco President and CEO Tim Gitzel said in a press release. 

The operation was initially placed into care and maintenance for four weeks, during which time Cameco would assess the status of the situation and determine whether to restart the mine or extend the suspension, the company said. 

At full production, some 300 skilled people are working at the Cigar Lake operation at any one time, though this number will be cut to 35 during the suspension, it said. 

The Cigar Lake operation is owned by Cameco (50.025%), Orano Canada Inc. (37.1%), Idemitsu Canada Resources Ltd. (7.875%) and TEPCO Resources Inc. (5.0%) and is operated by Cameco.

“In our view, this supply shock, if extended beyond four weeks, has the potential to become the turning point in a ~10-year bear market,” Scotiabank said in an investor note. 

Production also suspended at the Rössing Uranium mine

The Rössing Uranium mine will discontinue normal mining operations and enter a period of minimal mining operations, the CNNC said March 27, adding that as a safety measure critical maintenance work would continue.

“As a responsible employer CNNC Rössing Uranium is supporting the Namibian Government’s initiatives to contain the spread of the COVID-19 in Namibia,” the company said. 

The Namibian government has introduced a partial lockdown for the Erongo Region, where the mine is located. The Rössing mine discontinued normal mining operations and entered a period of minimal mining operations, while keeping critical maintenance work, on March 28. 

CNNC Rössing Uranium said it has introduced a COVID-19 Emergency response plan (ERP) which follows a four-phased approach to managing the outbreak, though this plan remained dynamic and will adapt to changing circumstances, it said. 

Namibian mines provided 5524 tU, or 10% of the world mining output, in 2018 from three mines including Rössing, according to the World Nuclear Association. 

Meanwhile, JSC National Atomic Company “Kazatomprom” in the Republic of Kazakhstan said on March 16 it “will not hesitate to take any actions necessary to keep people safe, ensure the environment is protected and our assets are properly managed during this global pandemic.”

EDF reviews France nuclear production targets

French utility EDF would “review and adjust downwards” its outlook of 375-390 TWh of nuclear production in France because of the Covid-19 pandemic, the company said March 23. 

“The EDF Group is fully mobilized to maintain critical activities in the context of the COVID-19 sanitary crisis,” said in a statement.

It reiterated targeted EBITDA (earnings before interest, tax, depreciation and amortization) of 17.5-18 billion euros ($19.3-19.8 billion), although at the lower end of the range, for this year, though warned it may be revised when the outlook on availability and associated costs became clear. 

“Impacts for 2021 cannot be assessed precisely at this stage,” it said.