Like meat packing plants, the novel Corona virus is infecting workers in nuclear power plants around the world. The danger is too high to imagine. Alex covers this new risk in a country review, with starring roles for America and Russia, the two countries among the most COVID-19 cases on Earth. Guest Grant Smith from the Environmental Working Group joins in.
The novel Coronavirus is a harsh teacher. High risks predicted by experts can become real, damaging our lives. We are taught that in blood, with hundreds of thousands of lives lost. Despite decades of warnings, reports, even exercises predicting exactly what happened. with this virus, we were caught off guard and unprepared, During this pandemic, the nuclear industry is another disaster not just waiting to happen, but already dancing with it. Some reactors have been shut down due to the pandemic. But most atomic companies demanded to stay open.
They call themselves essential services, despite a glut of electricity priced well below what the nuclear industry can match. In many countries, taxpayers are paying billions for mal-investments in nuclear power. In America, the private operators and their investors demanded the federal government top up user bills in order to compete with electricity from cheap wind and natural gas. They want safety regulations cut back, inspections and rules developed after major nuclear accidents to be relaxed.
In America, the Trump Administration is ready to help. Three of the 5 commissioners of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission were nominated by President Trump. Along with other environmental protection rules, the Trump Administration has been dropping safety requirements at nuclear plants. Now with the pandemic, it is a free-for-all for the nuclear operators – as they struggle to avoid painful bankruptcies across the nation.
In just one small example, the former on-site nuclear plant inspectors, found in all nuclear power plants by law, are now making their “inspections” over the phone. There is fear of massive absenteeism of nuclear employees as the pandemic infects workers and their families or contacts. In Georgia, 120 nuclear plant workers had to quarantine. American companies admit they have plans to keep emergency staff, thousands of them, at the reactors in a 24/7 lock down, sleeping on cots. But they won’t say if that is already happening or where. During this pandemic, a nuclear reactor in the United States is sunk down in ground flooded in Michigan. You probably did not hear about that. We will ask big questions about nuclear safety during the pandemic with our guest Grant Smith, Senior Energy Policy Advisor with EWG, the Environmental Working Group.
But it is not just America. The international scene is just as scary. Many companies said they had pandemic plans, but few did, or no plan on this scale. A few reactors in the UK and France were closed down because they could not be operated safely during a pandemic. Almost all the rest stay on, full power, despite workers getting infected, and essential supply chains in doubt. The Russian state atomic company Rosatom brags “Nuclear Is Not Afraid of COVID-19”. Construction on the first nuclear power plant in impoverished Bangladesh is continuing, they say, even though a few hundred Russian nuclear construction experts were called home during the pandemic. I guess it is up to the Bangladeshis to build it completely safely. Rosatom reports construction of new reactors in Egypt and Turkey continues through the pandemic.
Russian nuclear operators have been infected with this virus. Probably every country with a reactor or nuclear weapon has these infections and risks, without reporting it. What could go wrong? I summarize carefully worded reports that explain so much. A nuclear accident during a pandemic would be a dire twist in history. Maybe with a bit of sunlight and public voice, we can avoid that?
The industry reports terrorists threatened to attack nuclear facilities during this plague. Experts point to spikes in attempts to hack nuclear control systems, even while some reactor employees work from home computers. I hope they are not using Windows 10 with botched and hackable updates.. In all countries, from Finland to Canada to Australia, the problems or policies meant to cope with nuclear-sized risks during this pandemic are shrouded in secrecy.
A watchdog group reports major decisions approved by the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission require, by law, public consultation and information. The pandemic has excused all that, the brakes are off, the deregulators are not regulating. The NRC claims it rules the operation of nuclear plants, but not worker health. The NRC has not provided a public plan for nuclear plants during COVID-19. Other national governments are distracted. They are already politically and financially enmeshed in the nuclear game. That leaves safety up to nuclear plant owners and investors, the unseen wealthy and their CEOs, the ones already facing oblivion as dangerous aging reactors shut down one after another, and wind power blows them away.
You are already overloaded with bad news from this pandemic. Why should you bother with a secret, dangerous situation in the nuclear industry? Before it blows up. From the Chernobyl and Fukushima nuclear disasters we learned this painful lesson: a reactor blowing up anywhere is a reactor blowing up everywhere. You DO need to know what is going on in these shadows.
Sure I’ll mention extreme rainfall events flooding out toxic chemical plants – and millions of people on the Bay of Bengal. There is science news about more hurricanes this season, during the pandemic. Siberia is unbelievably, wildly hot. Weather has been destabilized in many parts of the world. As I reported weeks ago, COVID19 is raging out of control in Brazil, Russia has shot up to number two, and America… what can we say? The first wave is not over and the second is expected to arrive in June, especially in the denial states. Will there be a third resurgence in the Northern Hemisphere fall? Some of us will be gone by then.
This is a time to look where we most don’t want to see. The danger making this world more radioactive – or blowing up cities and civilization – that danger has been so extreme for so long. Most people do not want to hear about it. I know that. Downloads of this show from our web site will be lower than usual. But some day, our lives will not be limited by this virus. Someday, children will no longer need to nuclear fear. We can only get past these times by surviving them and then doing better.
I’m Alex Smith. This is Radio Ecoshock. Before I cover the convergence of a pandemic, climate change, and grave nuclear risks in many countries, let’s start out with our guest in America.
PANDEMIC STRIKES NUCLEAR WORKERS IN AMERICA – GRANT SMITH
American nuclear plant workers are being overworked, some crowded in conditions ripe for spread of the Coronavirus. By late April, multiple reactors reported employees infected with COVID-19. The Trump version of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission reacted to the crisis by dropping key safety rules and inspections. Grant Smith is Senior Energy Policy Advisor for EWG, the Environmental Working Group, headquartered in Washington D.C.
Grant and his editor at EWG wrote this excellent piece “As Pandemic Rages, Federal Nuclear Regulators Put Keeping Reactors Running Ahead of Public Health and Safety”.
“The federal government’s toothless nuclear “watchdog” has historically shown more concern for keeping dangerous aging reactors running than for Americans’ safety from a nuclear accident. So how is the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, or NRC, responding to the coronavirus pandemic?
Letting nuclear power plants cut back their workforces to facilitate social distancing – but letting them make up for the reduced numbers by requiring the remaining control room operators and other key employees to work back-to-back 84-hour weeks, heightening the danger of worker exhaustion that could contribute to a reactor accident.
Telling the agency’s on-site safety inspectors – two or more resident inspectors at each plant – to work from home, and allowing plants to defer required inspections of piping systems critical to cooling the reactors.
Keeping reactor refueling crews of up to 1,500 technicians traveling from plant to plant, working in crowded conditions and staying in nearby communities, increasing the likelihood of crew members spreading the virus.
The U.S. has 58 nuclear power plants housing 96 nuclear reactors in 29 states. Each plant employs 500 to 1,000 workers. Every 18 to 24 months, plants are powered down for four to six weeks for refueling, done in the spring or fall, when electric demand is low. According to the Nuclear Energy Institute, or NEI, the lobbying arm of the nuclear industry, refueling is scheduled at 56 plants this year.
On March 20, the NEI wrote the NRC to request that refueling crews have “unfettered access to travel across state lines” and unrestricted access to local hotels and food services, and to be prioritized for personal protective equipment. The NRC responded by allowing a reduction in the required number of plant personnel, and allowing an increased work week for remaining employees of 12-hour days for up to 14 days straight.”
Here is another good place to start on the U.S. nuclear/pandemic picture, with E&E News, “’New normal’: Inside the struggle to keep reactors running” by Edward Klump and Kristi E. Swartz, May 8, 2020. For example, Klump and Swartz say:
“The Vicksburg Post wrote last week about reports of 89 cases among employees or contractors for Entergy Corp.’s Grand Gulf plant in Mississippi. A report by MediaNews Group previously said a contractor labeled social distancing “a half-assed thing” at Exelon Corp.’s Limerick plant in Pennsylvania. And an Ohio newspaper said recently that DTE Energy Co. had an “extended safety stand down” at the Fermi 2 reactor in Michigan during a refueling outage because of a coronavirus outbreak.”
The Nuclear Resource Information Service has complained the NRC is not holding required public hearings and community consultations. Instead, citing the virus, the regulator and the operators are making critical decisions on their own, now in secret. We all know American reactors are very old. Most were built in the 1960’s and 70’s. They are running well beyond their original design life. That means they need specialize replacement parts all the time. But can we count on that supply chain when the pandemic has closed down so much business and industry?
With offices and factories closed down, there is a glut of electricity in the United States. Reactors have shut down during other emergencies. These old units down should at least power down during this pandemic, when workers are showing up sick with a dangerous communicable disease.
The industry claims they are under a sustained cyber-attack during the pandemic. Some of their computer systems use decades old technology that cannot be accessed from the Internet, so I suppose that is a safety feature. But what happens when hundreds or thousands of workers are asked to work from home computers?
We are also concerned about communities near reactors. Workers are going back to their families and communities. The industry admits they have backup plans to keep workers on site 24/7 – providing them with cots and pre-packaged food. Now that America has over a million and a half cases, over 100,000 confirmed COVID-19 deaths, has that emergency plan been implemented anywhere? The nuclear industry has announced they will not say what plants have staff quarantined inside.
There are American-designed nuclear reactors all over the world. Four General Electric Mark I reactors blew up at Fukushima Japan following the tsunami in 2011. But now most Americans were flown home during the pandemic. This disease raise worries about other U.S.-type reactors in other countries.
If America experiences a second or third wave of disease, worse than this first one, and this pandemic drags on for months or even a couple of years, can the nuclear power industry hold out? Can they just keep training replacements for their sick and dying workers? I know the American public doesn’t really want to hear about anything nuclear. It’s complex and scary to think about. We feel there is nothing we can do about it. The nuclear industry is happy with that, content to run reactors in the shadows, or even in secret. We aren’t handling the pandemic well, we are failing to stop horrible climate change. Can we revive a movement to shut nuclear down and using safe green energy instead?
AN AMERICAN REACTOR FLOODED BY AN EXTREME RAINFALL EVENT – DURING THE PANDEMIC
Grant Smith mentioned the climate threat to nuclear installations. We have a case of that right now. The American mid-West has experience record-setting extreme rainfall events. The City of Chicago just had it wettest May, for the third year in a row. All that rain burst two dams in Michigan, flooding out the city of Midland, population 42,000. It also flooded the Dow Chemical plant that has produced noxious chemicals for years, including Agent Orange. The company acknowledges their chemicals have leaked out over the years. It has been declared a Superfund site, among the worst in the country requiring federal cleanup funds. There are chemicals lining the river, now being stirred up by the flood, and washing down into Lake Michigan.
What is less reported is the Dow nuclear reactor at that flooded site. It is a smaller research reactor built in the 1960’s, called a TRIGA 1 model. The reactor is sunk down into the ground. It doesn’t have cooling rods, but depends on convection for water cooling. Although the reactor was not operating at the time of the flood in late May, the design suggest it probably still had nuclear materials inside. Are they now leaking out into the river and Lake Michigan. So far, the company says “no”. With no federal oversight reporting we can rely on, you just have to take the word of Dow Chemical that this reactor is perfectly safe during this extreme rainfall event. Nothing to worry about here, they say. Beyond nearly 400 very large nuclear power plants in the United States, there are thousands of smaller reactors scattered around the country, at Universities, military bases, and private companies. Who is keeping track of those as climate change and a pandemic come knocking at the door?
Here is that unusual event report to the NRC about the Dow Chemical reactor in Michigan. For those who want to dive deeper, here is a description of that Triga Mark I reactor.
RUSSIAN NUCLEAR INDUSTRY STRUGGLES WITH PANDEMIC
Now it the time to talk about the awful virus out of control in Russia, the last bastion of nuclear ambition with an infamous track record. I have to report it, because it seems no one from there feels safe to talk about it. One environment group reported safety questions about secret nuclear cities – after a government minister mentioned it. They declined an interview. I contacted reporters usually willing to do radio, including two from the English language Moscow Times, but got no reply. Radio silence as they say. These are dangerous times in Moscow, as ambulances line up outside hospitals, mortuaries go into overdrive, and the Putin government, like many governments, covers up early mistakes.
So I patch together what little we can find out. The Russian nuclear story, as I said in the beginning, spreads out to governments all over the world, from the Middle East to North Korea. Really their nuclear technology is not much more dangerous than in Japan or America. It is all dangerous when built and run by flawed humans. Every nuclear country has a secret history of near-misses and hidden atomic poisons. Britain, Canada, France, you name it. There is a long list of atomic leaks, break-downs, hair-raising risks all over the world.
Like the Trump Administration, the Putin government downplayed the threat of COVID-19 for precious months after it broke out in China. For a while in February, it looked like the pandemic would barely graze Russia. It was business-as-usual. Then the first wave arrived.
Now Russia has the third most serious infection in the world, with way over 300,000 cases confirmed, and who knows how many really. The government is reporting low death rates, under 4,000 mortalities. As in China, these numbers are not credible. The real number of deaths has to be many times that. In late May, the Moscow Times ran an article explaining why the Russian government did not count 60% of suspected Covid-19 deaths. Only cases where autopsies showed the disease were counted. But who has time or staff to do thousands of autopsies during a wave of the pandemic? The Moscow health department attributed the obvious spike in deaths to things like “heart failure, stage four malignant diseases, leukemia … and other incurable deadly diseases”.
In many ways, Russia is still a secret state. Certainly it has secret atomic cities. These are closed cities. You needed special permits to go there even before the pandemic, in fact, since the 1950’s. Nuclear bombs, missiles, and torpedoes are made there. Factories make reactors that can float in the sea, hide in the ground, or blast out into space. During Soviet times, these cities also specialized in chemical and biological weapons. Some say they still do, though the Russians publicly denounced those weapons.
So if was surprising when “The head of Russia’s state nuclear corporation has expressed concerns about the spread of the novel coronavirus to three of its so-called “nuclear cities.” At the beginning of May, Charles Digges from the Russian environment group Bellona wrote about it, after the public announcement by Rosatom chief Alexei Likhachev. Likhachev said: “The situation in Sarov, Elektrostal, Desnogorsk is today particularly alarming.” People in the West do not understand why it is alarming that anything was admitted at all. When he said it, Russia was just the seventh most infected country. Less than a month later, their cases have doubled, and Russia is number two worst.
The archipelago of nuclear labs and businesses controlled by Russia’s Rosatom employ around 250,000 people. The company admits they have stashed some workers permanently on nuclear sites, but like the U.S. industry, won’t say how many or where. This is what you do when you have an emergency. During the pandemic, they need to try to isolate enough workers to keep nuclear reactors operating and cool, to keep vast lakes and mountains of nuclear waste cool and secure, literally, to keep the lights on.
The record shows safety at many Russian nuclear complexes has been poor at the best of times. There is a long and painful history not just of nuclear accidents – those are legendary – but of atomic neglect. Barrels of highly radioactive materials were just buried all over, or sunk at sea. Nobody is totally sure where all of it went. The Soviet Union left the world a legacy of abandoned hot spots no-go zones. Putin inherited that, and doubled down on Russian nuclear ambitions. The Russians will sell, and have sold, nuclear technology to anyone. Iran? Sure. North Korea, well that transfer of Russian nuclear technology may or may not have been authorized. Now they are building a nuclear reactor in Bangladesh. But why not? Canada gave India nuclear tech that led to their atomic bomb, and trained the Pakistani father of the bomb. Canadian engineers watched as prison slave labor built a Candu nuclear plant in Romania. The Romanians couldn’t really pay, so Canada agreed to take it out in coal and jam. It’s a dirty corrupt business no matter who does it. The on-again off-again felon Mike Flynn was busy trying to selling nuclear reactors to dictators in the Middle East. China wants to make money selling reactors. Nobody makes money selling reactors. Nuclear power is the biggest money pit in the history of money pits. And the cost never ends. Deconstruction usually falls on future taxpayers. The dangerous radioactive waste needs to be secured and guarded for tens of thousands of years. It’s never over.
Thank goodness nuclear weapons are no longer a threat. Except both Russia and the United States have announced new supersonic atomic delivery missiles in just the last couple of years. Trump is pushing to build new nuclear weapons – the best anybody has ever seen! Britain is always embarking on a new nuclear plan that sinks into hundreds of billions of wasted pounds. Don’t get me started on nuclear waste dump schemes that never work or mini-reactors to save the climate.
But the Russians have to be champions of nuclear secrecy. I don’t know of any other whole cities entirely closed off, so secret they did not even appear on maps. Now they say that despite official worries, everything nuclear is under control in Russia. The Rosatom chief reported 47 employees infected with COVID-19. 23 of them are in the secret city of Sarov, he said, in late April. How many are there now?
MORE NUCLEAR WORRIES IN RUSSIA AS COVID-19 RUNS RAMPANT
Eleven hundred miles East of Moscow, the Russian nuclear power plant at Beloyarsk was the first to keep it’s staff on site. Nobody goes home. That was reported in Russian-only by the state news agency Interfax. At least one staff member was sick for days with a high fever. That was in April. The old reactors from the 1960’s are temporarily shut down, but now they run two large fast-neutron reactors there.
The Russian group Bellona reports “270 workers isolated at the Rostov nuclear plant took to social media to complain they were being treated like ’cattle’.” That is in Southwest corner of Russia, along the Don River. The workers reported lack of protection against the virus and terrible working conditions. Rosatom says those concerns have since been addressed.
URANIUM MINING SHUT DOWN AROUND THE WORLD
Rosatom also reports the large Russian uranium mining industry has been shut down due to coronavirus concerns. Many mines of all kinds have been closed around the world. We will start to feel the shortages some time in the fall, even though demand has fallen off. The Russians are also concerned about their electric utilities, because as they say “Falling incomes of both retail and corporate consumers might result in a tidal wave of unpaid electricity bills.” The American and European electric utilities fear that too. Uranium mining has been closed down for the pandemic pretty well everywhere from Canada to Kazakhstan to Namibia. Nuclear reprocessing plants are also closed. There is currently a glut of nuclear fuel, but I suppose if the pandemic is not solved in a year or so, nuclear power plants could run low on fuel. Perhaps experts can advise us on that.
On April 14, a Russia language news outlet reported three employees of Kursk Nuclear Power Plant were infected by COVID-19. That is in the city of Kurchatov, in the direction of the border with Ukraine. You need a special permit to go there too. How many are infected there now? The Russian nuclear industry, both weapons and power, is not immune to this novel virus. So far they have not been overwhelmed by it. Not that we know of. Now that the pandemic is full blown and still growing in Russia, there is practically nothing coming out about the nuclear danger there. I suppose we will find out 30 years from now when the archives are released. Or maybe any day now, when radioactivity monitors in Sweden or Washington State go off. Of course, that could be coming from Japan, China, Canada, the U.S., or any of the dozens of nuclear operations run by humans with no immunity to a new disease, and economies shaking down.
THERE IS ANOTHER HOT SPOT – SIBERIA
Before we leave Russia, let me tell you about another hot spot there: Siberia.
In last week’s Radio Ecoshock program, two top scientists told us about the coming heat as we load up the atmosphere with carbon. Dr. Radley Horton from Columbia was part of a team that discovered heat beyond human endurance is already popping up in various countries. It’s not that hot in Siberia. I’m sure the locals are enjoying the early summer warmth, although they must be nervous. Forest fires, and they have massive planet-changing forest fires, are already burning in Siberia, when it should be time for the snow to melt.
Dr. Genevieve Guenther tweets:
The heatwave in Siberia is horror movie stuff.
Imagine thinking you're going out into a bitterly cold 10°F day, but opening your door only to discover it's nearly 80° out.
That's what's happening right now. In reality.
— Dr. Genevieve Guenther (@DoctorVive) May 18, 2020
For European and Canadian listeners, that’s 31 degrees C in Siberia, instead of -12 C, over a massive, massive area. Will we see a repeat of the 2010 heat wave over Russia, that killed tens of thousands of people and closed down the country’s wheat export trade? How much carbon will be released this year from forest fires in the far north? It has begun.
WHY IS ALEX FIXATED ON NUCLEAR?
Some people ask me: Alex, what is your fixation with this nuclear power thing? As kids we were taught to duck under my school desk, in case our city was evaporated by a Soviet nuclear bomb. That was a real fear for a generation. Later, as a reporter in a uranium mining town, I wrote obituaries for miners who died too young. Our rural retreat was downwind from the Pickering nuclear reactors which broke down with cracked tubes. I got away from all that in Vancouver, until a Professor at Simon Fraser University – just up the hill from my home – found radioactive particles blowing in from Fukushima Japan. Radio Ecoshock covered the multi-reactor meltdowns in Fukushima with emergency podcasts from day one, the day it happened.
WHEN JAPAN CAME CLOSE TO LOSING IT ALL TO A NUCLEAR ACCIDENT
Some listeners may not realize how close Japan came to becoming two isolated pods of partly inhabitable islands. That country was saved by favorable wind, just the wind blowing about 85% of the radioactivity out to the Pacific Ocean, where it hit the American aircraft carrier Ronald Regan and 15 support ships. Those sailors, some of them are dying from cancer and still using the courts trying to get compensation for being irradiated on the job. The ships were still contaminated years later.
Had the wind blown inland, the center of Japan might still be evacuated, for generations. Tokyo was heavily polluted with radioactivity, both directly and then following, when rains washed radioactive particles into the wet ground below the city, and out into Tokyo Bay. The whole world is fortunate the novel Corona virus postponed the International Olympic Games in Japan. The Japanese were insisting on using playing fields right in the ground-zero city of Fukushima. There are still measurable radioactive hot spots there. Athletes and fans would be exposed, although their cancers might not show up until a couple of decades later. It was madness of the IOC to agree to sports events in Fukushima Japan. No doubt the Japanese will try again, if this pandemic ever ends. Nuclear insanity never sleeps.
Several large Japanese reactors never reopened following damage from the 2011 tsunami. The doomed nuclear reprocessing plant was still closed, last I heard. But other nuclear plants HAVE reopened in Japan, despite public opposition and protests. The nuclear myth is hard to kill. Now running reactors in Japan face yet another threat as staff become infected with COVID-19. They should shut down to protect the public, but I predict they will not. Humans appear incapable of adapting when new threats to the existing power order strike.
OTHER COUNTRY ASSESSMENTS: CANADA, EUROPE AND BEYOND
But the giant risks when a pandemic infects the nuclear chain goes far beyond the United States, Russia or Japan. For our world listeners, let’s run through a few, with the help of a report from INRAG – the International Nuclear Risk Assessment Group. On April 24th these experts put out a working paper called “Nuclear Safety and Security during a Pandemic”. They use careful language, always quoting what authorities say, and then gently pointing out questions that should raise the hair on the back of your neck.
For example, this on Canada: “Planned upgrade work on the Ontario Power Generation (OPG) Darlington Nuclear Generating Station’s Unit 3 has been postponed. Work to enhance the safety of the plant in the context of the station’s plant life extension was scheduled to start in May 2020 but is now postponed to a later date, “to help ensure stable electricity supplies during the Covid-19 pandemic”, according to the WNA20 [World Nuclear Association industry group]. Since the plant remains on-line, the question of continued safe operation remains potentially unresolved.” Yikes. A worker at the Pickering nuclear reactors near Toronto Canada was also sent home with COVID-19. But the government and the media in Canada are saying little about this big risk.
Finland had to delay loading nuclear fuel into their new unit 3 at Olkiluoto because of the pandemic. Have they had infections in workers at the other units now powered up?
“The pandemic has had major impacts on France’s nuclear workforce. It is reported that of 22,500 employees of EDF’s Nuclear Production Department 15,000 are on telework.26 On March 20, 2020, it was reported that EDF had “declined to comment about the level of absenteeism or the number of confirmed coronavirus infections among its staff” but had said that “its nuclear plants could operate for three months with a 25% reduction in staffing levels and for two to three weeks with 40% fewer staff.”
Coming to specific locations, work at the Flamanville site in France, where two reactors are in operation and one is under construction, has been impeded, and EDF reduced its staff level from 800 to 100 on the site. Only people in charge of safety and security remain on-site. The two operating reactors at the site have been in outage since January 2019 and September 2019 respectively with major maintenance, repair and upgrade work underway.32 Construction work at the third reactor at the site has been
Major outages for NPPs in Germany were planned for April and May. The German regulatory authority has forbidden the maintenance and refuelling outage of the nuclear power plant Grohnde as originally planned. The shutdown and related activities would have necessitated about 1,500 staff for a period of two weeks at the plant site. The outage is now planned to take an additional four weeks, while restricting the necessary workforce to a maximum of 250. It is expected that the schedule of planned outages at other plants will also change accordingly.
Transports of highly radioactive wastes from the Sellafield reprocessing plant in the U.K., planned for the spring of this year, have been postponed, as the required corresponding police operation was not feasible.”
That was from the International Nuclear Risk Assessment Group. It sounds like European nuclear operators are struggling to cope with this massive pandemic, but still keep reactors going no matter the risk even when electricity demand has plummeted. Sweden has idled two reactors at the Vattenfall Ringhals plant – not directly because of infection, but due to electricity prices below the cost of production at nuclear plants.
As you heard from Rosatom, nuclear construction projects employing thousands of workers are still going ahead in Egypt and Turkey. Neither country is currently operating a loaded reactor, so the big worry is will the building be done flawlessly under such pressure? The same question looms for Bangladesh.
Fortunately, Iran’s Bushehr reactor was shut down for refueling as the coronavirus struck the country.
CHINA’S BIG NUCLEAR INDUSTRY IN THE PANDEMIC
What about China, where nuclear reactors bloom like new flowers? The government-run authority says there is absolutely no problem with this pandemic thing. Bloomberg news reports “the coronavirus caused reduced output at CGN Power Co.’s atomic plants after the Lunar New Year holiday”. Output from nuclear power dropped 4.7% in the first quarter from the year before,according to the company. That is shocking in a country that was always expanding demand exponentially.
China is one of the countries in the world on a nuclear construction binge. They have 15 reactor sites rising up all over the country. All that is going full speed ahead, with countless thousands of workers, pandemic or no pandemic, the government says. As Reuters reports in late April, the Chinese Ministry of Ecology and Environment says not a single existing nuclear power plant has been affected by the Coronavirus pandemic. I guess those workers have a magic pill the rest of the world can’t find. As this persistent virus flares back up in China, with another lockdown of about a hundred million people, it’s a news desert for nuclear operations. There is no credible news and no transparency from Chinese nuclear operators. That is not a good thing.
China National Nuclear Corporation – responsible for both reactors and nuclear weapons, – employs 100,000 people. There is a second state-owned nuclear power operator: China General Nuclear Power Group (listed with 11,000 employees).
So we have over 110,000 employees, some of whom are essential to running nuclear power plants. Let’s be conservative and guesstimate that only 15,000 are need to run the plants, including maintenance, supply and security. It could be double that. There would be NO chance that none of those workers had COVID-19. But absolutely nothing has leaked out about this. Government press releases say all reactors operated normally, everything is fine.
There are no operating nuclear power plants in Wuhan and it’s surrounding region. All current Chinese nuclear power plants are on the Pacific Ocean coast. So there was no nuclear power plant right at the epicenter of the disease. We at least know that workers building nuclear reactors were affected, by this article in Power Technology.
“ Work was suspended on few nuclear reactors which are under construction in China following the coronavirus outbreak. Now as work is slowly restarting in the country, countermeasures have been taken for all staff members returning to nuclear site.”
ABRUPT CLIMATE CHANGE, NUCLEAR POWER AND COVID 19. THE PERFECT STORM
If you are looking for more alternative news on this combined threat of nuclear reactors and COVID-19, check out this episode of Nature Bats Last where Kevin Hester interviews Paul Gunter of Beyond Nuclear.
A STRONG STORM COMING FOR COASTAL NUCLEAR POWER STATIONS
While the pandemic keeps killing people and jobs, climate change is not sleeping. You know all those nuclear reactors clustered along coast lines in many countries? New science released at the end of May shows hurricanes really are getting stronger. I hope to get one of the authors on this program. The U.S. National Ocean and Atmospheric Administration has also issued a warning for a busy hurricane season in 2020, with three to six very dangerous hurricanes expected. The oceans have heated up from our emissions and that powers hurricanes stronger than when America’s old reactors were planned and built.
Scientists and the government are warning more super storms could batter the coast and nuclear reactors. In 1992 Hurricane Andrew passed directly over the Turkey Point Nuclear Station, owned by Florida Power and Light. In 2018, Hurricane Florence grazed Duke Energy’s reactors at Brunswick North Carolina. It’s only a matter of time. Remember, even if the nuclear operator gets a few days warning, and manages a fast power-down, all American nuclear plants have frightening piles of highly radioactive spent fuel rods stored on site, some in metal sheds. If a great storm spins that up into the sky, part of a country can be too contaminated for human settlement. Or the south could switch to harmless solar or wind power.
The bottom line in all countries: big corporations and governments should shut down all nuclear power plants until we are safe from this highly infectious deadly disease. They could, but they don’t. We are addicted to dangerous power and we don’t know how to stop. That is the truth about this civilization speeding toward collapse.
An extra thank you for listening all the way through this week. Nuclear news is always like going to the dentist. Nobody looks forward to it but it’s worse if we don’t go. Also, a huge thanks to listeners who support me in this work during difficult times. I’m Alex Smith. Thank you for caring about reality.