Maintaining nuclear safety during a pandemic

Published 7th October, 2020 by Nick Shaw, Chair of Hazards Forum’s Board of Trustees

Back in March 2020 as the world was changing rapidly in-line with the exponential curve of what we now know as Covid-19, all organisations were wrestling with the notion of how to respond.  In July the Hazards Forum invited two guest speakers to join their inaugural webinar to hear how this was tackled from two perspectives.  Mr Phil Hallington, Head of Policy – Sellafield Ltd, and Dr Mina Golshan, Deputy Chief Inspector – Office for Nuclear Regulation (ONR), spoke about how each organisation responded to the emerging crisis and how they navigated the very complex challenge of maintaining nuclear safety by balancing hazard and risk reduction with the health and wellbeing of their respective workforces.

Sellafield site has 200 nuclear facilities over 2 square miles and has 15,000 staff and contractors on-site at any one time.  Its response to the pandemic was particularly challenging as there are a number of facilities and operations which cannot be shut down.  Care and Surveillance, and the essential operation of facilities that store highly active liquid waste, spent fuel storage ponds and the ongoing receipt of fuel from the Advanced Gas Reactor power stations in the UK, had to continue regardless of any lockdown.  From the outset the focus was on safety, security and environmental protection and getting those facilities which can enter quiescence into a safe state before the lockdown in the UK was declared.

At ONR visits to site were initially halted whilst the situation was evaluated.  Inspection plans were reviewed, and ways of working were established which didn’t require an on-site presence.  This was achieved by understanding Sellafield Ltd’s plans, challenging them where appropriate, and aligning ONR’s inspections plans to theirs.  ONR developed a three-phase plan.  For phase 1 presence on-site was not needed as ONR inspectors had already inspected the key nuclear facilities immediately prior to the lockdown.  Remote inspections were carried out remotely for seven weeks which were deemed to be fit for purpose and these focused upon gaining assurance that arrangements for entering some facilities and operations into a quiescent state and preparing for restart, were adequate.  For phase 2, on-site inspections resumed in June.  These were concerned with ensuring restart plans were adequate, that public health measures were in place and that Sellafield Ltd was ready to work within the new restrictions safely and securely.  ONR is now planning for phase 3: resuming normal regulation in-line with revised public health guidelines.  For both organisations, working remotely was successfully implemented and this enabled the core of each organisations’ business missions to continue.

Back at Sellafield a staged approach to re-start was implemented and this was followed by a broader recovery focus which included developing further resilience against future challenges such as the onset of seasonal flu.  Both organisations found sustaining workforce confidence in the leaderships’ response to Covid-19 to be important and effective engagement and communication with the workforce to be key.  At Sellafield, consideration was also given to contractors and the challenges they faced to ensure the lockdown did not adversely impact access to the skills required as the lockdown eased.

There is invariably a huge amount of learning and the situation remains dynamic with a great deal of uncertainty ahead.  Enabling regulation and early collaborative interaction between the dutyholder and the regulator was essential to the success of the Sellafield Ltd’s initial response to the pandemic and ONR’s regulation.

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