CNIC Statement on COVID-19 threat: Stop all construction work at nuclear power plants and shut down operations

CNIC Statement

20 April 2020

Nuclear power plants are at present facing another grave danger. This is of course the COVID-19 virus. Already workers have tested positive for COVID-19 at the construction site of the severe accident facility at Genkai Nuclear Power Plant in Kyushu and also TEPCO’s Kashiwazaki-Kariwa Nuclear Power Plant’s back office staff.

The number of workers depends on the size of the plant, but at normal operation times, approximately 1,000 people work at a typical plant and thousands more are present during regular maintenance inspections and construction and often these workers come from all over Japan.

Of particular concern are the nuclear power stations which are still running. Places like the main control room are typically closed, crowded and conversations take place in close proximity, the “three Cs” which the Japanese government has explicitly told us must be avoided. If one of the workers in a shift were infected, all the others, who are in close contact, would be at high risk of infection. There is also a risk of the workers in the shift immediately before and after being infected. It depends on the plants, but typically there are five teams which are rotated in 2 or 3 shifts per day. If even one team is lost, there would be a major impact on operations but if the shift before and after were also lost, it would surely become almost impossible to continue to operate the plant. This is a nuclear power plant and as we were all reminded very clearly by the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster, nuclear power plants cannot simply be switched off. The decay heat generated by the nuclear fuel must be continuously cooled otherwise it could cause immense damage. In other words, it is not possible to just shut it down if there is a COVID19 outbreak in the plant.

Another important point to consider is what will happen if a major accident occurs during a COVID-19 outbreak. People will need to be evacuated in crowded buses to crowded evacuation centers, again into situations where the “three Cs” are unavoidable. What kind of pressure will this put on an already over-burdened medical system? Or on our political leaders who are already completely overwhelmed with trying to deal with COVID-19? Clearly the country would not be able to cope in the event of a major nuclear disaster. And it’s not as if the COVID-19 problem is likely to be solved in the near future. Development of a vaccine, etc. will certainly take time.

Utilities make high claims that they are operating in a strict ‘safety culture.’ The Nuclear Regulation Authority’s ‘Safety Culture Statement’ says that it is not possible to guarantee 100% safety, so that in order to protect people and the environment, safety must be given top priority under all circumstances. If this is the case, nuclear power plant operators should take the initiative in dealing with the dangers that face them regarding COVID-19. It is not enough to simply limit the number of people onsite. At a minimum, operators should immediately stop all construction that is taking place onsite. For those plants that are undergoing regular inspections, the inspections should also be temporarily halted and the number of workers onsite reduced to the absolute minimum. Finally, as it is impossible to cope with a severe accident in the present conditions, all nuclear plants should be shut down to reduce the risk of an accident as much as possible. It will be too late after an accident has happened.

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