As the COVID-19 pandemic rolled across the country early this spring, shutting down airlines, retailers and legislatures, Canada’s nuclear industry rapidly put in place business contingency plans developed nearly 20 years ago after the SARS epidemic.
And, by all accounts, they worked.
Indeed, key industry players had long ago socked away tons of personal protective equipment (PPE) and developed “what-if” disaster plans that helped the country’s nuclear power plants, uranium mines, research reactors, and nuclear waste disposal sites roll with the pandemic punch.
And yet, as the pandemic shut down one industry after another this spring, senior staff at the country’s nuclear industry regulator worried that their ability and the ability of those they regulate to guarantee the safety of Canadians might have been put at risk.
Those memos detail how senior staff at the country’s industry regulator, the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission (CNSC), immediately began daily meetings, with each participant joining in from home offices or other remote locations. CNSC staff were also in constant contact with its licensees — operators of nuclear facilities like Ontario Power Generation or Saskatoon-based uranium miner Cameco.
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The April memo identified dozens of risks COVID-19 the CNSC was worried about. And yet, by June, the regulator was convinced that the industry had not only survived the crisis but, in some respects, had thrived during the pandemic.
“I think our licensees have actually done a very splendid job themselves in delivering, whatever business they’re in, in a very safe manner,” CNSC CEO Rumina Velshi said in an interview.
That assessment was confirmed in interviews with unions representing workers at nuclear facilities and with nuclear industry operators.
The Canadian Nuclear Workers Council is an umbrella organization of unions that represent workers in the industry in Saskatchewan, Manitoba, Ontario and New Brunswick.
The key determinant for success appears to have been plans put in place after the SARS crisis of 2002-2004. While that crisis was not as severe as the current COVID-19 crisis, the industry recognized that a pandemic could pose a serious threat to all kinds of operations involving nuclear power generation, nuclear research, isotope production, nuclear waste management and to the mining and refining of uranium, the fuel used in most nuclear applications.
Canada reported just 251 cases and 44 deaths from SARS but the outbreak was enough of a warning that the industry developed and maintained plans and resources that they would draw on this spring when COVID-19 hit.
But planning was not enough, industry and union officials said in several interviews.
The key factor for the industry was getting employees to buy into the new operational realities brought on by COVID-19. While there were some conflicts over scheduling or the pace of return-to-work plans, union representatives say that, by and large, employers in the industry avoided confrontation with employee groups as they addressed the problem.
“You need to talk to your workers, talk to your worker reps and collaborate,” said Walker. “If you don’t, you’re not going to be successful. So it took some very strong collaboration to get people back to work safely.
“And those pandemic plans have been kept up to date as we’ve as we move forward,” said Walker. “So those plans are already there. They’re already in place.”
Indeed, Ontario Power Generation had done such a good job maintaining a stockpile of personal protective equipment that it initially created more than a decade ago in response to SARS that it has been able to donate more than 1 million pieces of PPE — masks, suits, face shields — from some of its stockpile to hospitals and other front-line workers.
“We had a warehouse full of this stuff,” said Neal Kelly, OPG’s media relations director. “We’d kept our supplies up.”
The CNSC has 869 employees most of whom normally work out of a secure facility in a downtown Ottawa office building. But those employees — like most government employees — were told to work from home when the pandemic hit.
The documents obtained by Global News show that the CNSC was concerned about maintaining the security of the nuclear files they had been trusted with but were also concerned about the ability of the federal government’s information technology system to be able to support nearly 900 employees working from remote locations.
Those concerns, voiced in memos in April, were largely assuaged by July.
“Our priority … was we need to make sure we’re protecting Canadians and the environment,” Velshi said, “and what are those critical facilities and activities that we need to focus our efforts on.”
The CNSC says there have been no reports of any safety incidents, unsafe conditions or other emergencies at any of its licensees.
In fact, one licensee — Ontario Power Generation — actually hit some remarkable operational milestones during and despite the pandemic. At OPG’s Darlington power station near Toronto, a reactor known as Unit Two completed a decade-long refurbishment and was re-connected to Ontario’s power grid. And while that was happening, the Unit One reactor at Darlington set a North American record on July 9 for 895 days of continuous operation without having to be shut down for maintenance or repair.
“That is a remarkable feat given the challenging situation that we’re in,” said Velshi.
The CNSC has had to modify its inspection regime for its licensees given physical distancing guidelines. But it says that licensees have worked with the regulator to maintain an appropriate oversight regime.
“We could log into their different databases to see what the condition of the stations and their own internal inspections were,” said Velshi. “If we wanted photographs or videos of the condition of things, they would very readily provide that.”
The CNSC memos provided to Global News indicate that Natural Resources Minister Seamus O’Reagan and “the centre” — a term used by bureaucrats to refer to the Prime Minister’s Office — were kept up to speed about the nuclear industry’s response to COVID-19.
An assessment prepared by the CNSC in early June ran through the situation in each industry segment.
No nuclear power plant operator “encountered any difficulty with maintaining a minimum shift complement,” CNSC staff concluded.
“All research reactors have put in place business continuity plans and are currently in operation, with all non-critical staff working from home.”
In early April, Cameco safely suspended its fuel conversion and refinery operations at Port Hope, Ont., and Blind River, Ont., respectively but was able to safely re-start operations by mid-May.
Cameco’s uranium mining operation at Cigar Lake and Urano Inc.’s McClean Lake mill, both in northern Saskatchewan, “were slowly brought to safe shutdown state.” On July 29, both firms announced plans to restart mining and milling operations at those facilities later this month.
Walker said that because Canada’s nuclear industry is one of Canada’s most heavily unionized industrial sectors, workers’ advocates are significant contributors to workplace safety.
“We had the preparations from SARS for pandemic planning, a strong regulator, we’ve got strong unions and it’s in the employers’ interest in the nuclear industry to make sure they’re operating safely.”
Velshi said the industry’s reaction to COVID-19 is also a validation of Canada’s regulatory regime.
“What we have been able to demonstrate is even during a major crisis like that, we have a very solid regulatory framework that allows our licensees to carry on with their business,” Velshi said. “And do it safely.”