The crisis we face today is unlike any we have ever faced in the era of globalisation and interconnectiveness. All countries feel the impact, all economies are affected, all populations are under threat. The event is ongoing and, by most accounts, is likely to be with us for months.
In the short term, an important pillar of any country’s pandemic response strategy will be a reliable electricity supply. Many parts of the infrastructure essential to modern life – food supply, transportation and public health services cannot function without reliable electricity. The principal threat to the operation of any electricity generating facility during a pandemic will be the direct and indirect effects on essential personnel for extended periods.
The nuclear sector, like all other areas of our modern society, is doing its part to reduce the number of infections. The world’s nuclear power plants are operating safely and effectively and are contributing to the reliable grids needed to power the untold millions who are teleworking, the families sheltering at home, and essential medical facilities operating far beyond their intended capacity. But while the energy flows, the sector itself is impacted by the pandemic and must quickly adapt to ever‑changing, unprecedented, and uncertain circumstances.
It is the norm in the nuclear sector to change processes and practices only after deliberate analyses, with numerous viewpoints taken into account; but today's crisis calls upon all for quick responses. Decisions must be made rapidly in situations that have no complete parallel. Regulators must adjust their plans for inspections. Operators will defer outages and modifications to their plants. Technologies that allow people to do their jobs away from normal workplaces must be applied in new and novel ways. In each country, choices made are made in the context of the level of threat to the health and safety of the workforce and the general population. Still, in each country, nuclear safety will remain the priority of all.
With this backdrop, the NEA must support our members as they adjust to the environment created by the COVID-19 crisis. We are establishing a means for rapid exchange of ideas and best practices, information about what is working well and what is not. While we hope that the threat from this pandemic will soon lessen, many experts anticipate a considerable risk to public health through into May and June, with potential of a second round of infections in September and October. The NEA's ongoing work will serve both immediate necessities and prepare us for the longer term.
In the meantime, the pandemic has been a test of the NEA's own safety culture. I am pleased to report that the same safety culture we highlight in our publications on nuclear operations, putting health and safety first, has been applied to the NEA itself. The entire Agency has been teleworking since 12 March, with little disruption to its work. While important events have been postponed, the work of our committees has continued, software packages from the NEA Data Bank continue to be issued, and we will shortly host our first web event since the crisis—on the crisis itself.