Let’s not ignore the resilience of nuclear energy industry
Though Covid-19 pandemic has impacted significantly the overall global energy sector, the nuclear energy industry remained mostly unaffected and uninterrupted. In many countries operations in different parts of the nuclear industry have continued, proving its inherent resilience in comparison to other sources of energy production.
This is not to argue that nuclear industry was completely untouched by the pandemic. Depending on the location, magnitude of spread, and health condition of employees, operations not vital to ensuring the continued operation of nuclear power plants may have been stopped. Due to workers health conditions and reduction of workforce, cutback in uranium production occurred in Kazakhstan, Canada, and Namibia; reactor newbuild schedule also got delayed for a short period in China, France, UAE, UK and USA. But production cutbacks in uranium have had a positive impact on price since demand for uranium has not suffered to nearly the extent as the demand for oil during the pandemic. Rather the uranium price has increased 33% from its lowest point registered in mid-March 2020 and has broken the $30 level for the first time since 2016. Meanwhile, it would take just a couple of years up to 2025 to return to the accelerated level of new reactor build as registered during pre-pandemic phase.
Nuclear energy caters about 10% of global electricity consumption which is carbon-free, produced in over 30 countries. During the pandemic, particularly in 2020, global nuclear consumption fell by 4.1%, falling the most in European Union (-11%), Japan (-33%) and the United States (-2%) largely owing to depressed electricity demand, temporary shutdowns for maintenance, and permanent shutdowns. Meanwhile, nuclear power increased in China (5%) and Russia (3%), with new units being commissioned during the pandemic. In Belarus and the UAE, the first nuclear reactor entered commercial operation, with more units currently under construction. Nuclear power rebounded and increased 2% in 2021, reversing half of the decline in output within a year. Moreover, seven new reactors came online during 2020-2021.
Though in 2021, nuclear energy production stands 2% below the 2019 level, yet “nuclear remains the largest single source of low-carbon generation”, resilient and cost-effective energy system in major economies during Covid-19. In addition, no enforced shutdown of nuclear power reactors were undertaken due to the effects of Covid-19 pandemic on the workforce or supply chains. How the nuclear industry managed the pandemic situation when all other sectors couldn’t withstand the supply chain disruptions, shifting consumer preferences, and the outright lockdown of many economic interactions?
In fact, the nuclear industry already has a robust safety culture in place worldwide. Before becoming a global pandemic, nuclear operators worldwide executed business continuity plans and took the necessary steps for dealing with the impact of the virus. The plant operators stepped up precautionary measures to stop the spread of coronavirus. In many countries nuclear employees have been identified as among the key workers that are essential to maintaining important infrastructure during the pandemic. Other precautionary measures like scaling down of staff, workforce self-isolation or quarantine, limiting non-essential business travel plans and carrying out business meetings online, remote handling of work if possible to maintain social distancing, etc. were stepped up that helped nuclear industry to deal with the pandemic induced risks. Overseas NPP construction projects by nuclear giants like Rosatom remain uninterrupted by strictly following the recommendations and guidelines of the disease control services of Russia, as well as measures by the host countries.
While combating the virus menace within the plant and its own workforce, the nuclear industry came handy to tackle the spread of the disease by providing diagnostic kits, equipment and training in nuclear-derived detection techniques supported by IAEA to countries looking for such assistance. In Russia, irradiation facilities had sterilized 7,853,480 medical masks (as of April 2020), as well as 151,000 portable lab kits to test for Covid-19. By maintaining the reactor operation, vital medical isotopes production and use continued for the diagnosis and treatment of other illnesses.
The pandemic may have touched the nuclear industry but could not derail it primarily for its internal resilience and sustainable industrial base. While any accelerated new reactor build may not be seen up to 2025, but the next couple of years will be crucial to secure the future of nuclear power as the world adapts to a post-pandemic environment. It is high time that we must realize the sustainability of nuclear energy vis-à-vis other sources which has been amply proved during the pandemic.
Views expressed above are the author’s own.