Covid-19 Coronavirus and Nuclear Energy

  • Nuclear reactors played a key role in many countries in ensuring that electricity supplies were maintained during the Covid-19 pandemic.
  • Reactor operators took steps to protect their workforce and implemented business continuity plans to ensure the continuing function of key business activities where appropriate.
  • Operations were at times temporarily halted at some facilities, where necessary or deemed appropriate, to prevent the spread of the virus and protect workers.
  • Nuclear technologies continue to be used to detect and fight the virus.

Coronavirus disease 2019 (Covid-19) is an infectious disease caused by the severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2). The pandemic resulted in governments across the world taking drastic actions, in particular in 2020 and 2021, that impacted nearly all aspects of life.

Maintaining reliable electricity supplies and ‘keeping the lights on’ is vital. Nuclear generation supplies about 10% of electricity worldwide and contributes to electricity generation in over 30 countries. In many countries nuclear employees were regarded as key workers that were essential to maintaining important infrastructure during the pandemic. Additionally, in the USA, for example, critical infrastructure designation was extended to nuclear plant, supply chain, fuel services, and outage support personnel. 

Nuclear generation has two characteristics that assist in maintaining supplies. Firstly, in most reactors, fuel assemblies are used for around three years. There is therefore greater security of supply than for fossil fuel plants, which require a constant feed of coal or gas. Reloads of nuclear fuel take place every 12-18 months and in response to the pandemic, many operating companies developed strategies to focus on refuelling during outages to reduce the number of staff required. Secondly, nuclear reactors operate with high capacity factors, providing a more reliable, constant supply than intermittent renewables, such as wind and solar.

There was no enforced shutdown of a nuclear power reactor due to the effects of Covid-19 on the workforce or supply chains, according to reports from operators and regulators received through the International Atomic Energy Agency's (IAEA's) Covid-19 Operational Experience Network (OPEX) and International Reporting System for Operating Experience (IRS). According to the IAEA, operators and regulators continued to ensure safety and security at plants worldwide even as the pandemic impacted them in various ways, including their planned outages and maintenance schedules.

The measures taken by governments around the world to combat Covid-19 resulted in a fall in electricity consumption in some countries during periods of 'lockdown' – typically reductions of 10-25% of expected demand. Depending on national circumstances, and arrangements for compensation, selected nuclear plants can reduce output or stop generation where any reduction in overall demand requires it. Adjustments to activities such as scheduled maintenance outages were also made, by deferring non-critical work, commensurate with the availability of staff while observing distancing practices.

Responses to protect workers and ensure continued operation of reactors

The nuclear industry took action in response to the Covid-19 pandemic to protect workers and reduce transmission of the virus. 

Actions that were taken depended on the guidance and directives implemented in different countries and regions. In countries where it was advised or required, remote working was implemented for those staff not required to work on-site. This reduced the number of staff onsite, which helped implement distancing measures. Companies also restricted or cancelled non-essential business travel and used conference video and audio calls for meetings, even for those employees that were still working on-site. Other ways social distancing was enhanced incuded staggering staff meal breaks to reduce the number of staff using canteens at the same time or staggering the start and end of shifts to reduce the number of staff arriving / leaving at the same time. Measures to screen workers on-site included temperature monitoring to identify fever, a common symptom of Covid-19. In addition, the importance of maintaining high levels of hygiene, staying at home where appropriate and maintaining social distancing away from work ewas as high for nuclear workers as it was for everyone.

Some companies secured supplies of food, beds and other essentials to allow workers to stay on-site to minimize their contact with others. Key nuclear plant staff may also have had the opportunity to stay in dedicated accommodation and travel to and from site in separate transportation.

Managing the impacts of Covid-19 across all areas of nuclear industry operations

In many countries, operations in different parts of the nuclear industry continued. However, depending on the Covid-19 situation in the specific location of nuclear power plants, operations not vital in ensuring their continued operation may have been stopped.


Kazatomprom, Kazakhstan’s state-owned uranium production company announced on 7 April 2020 that, in order to abide by local lockdown requirements and reduce the risk of a localized outbreak, all of Kazatomprom’s subsidiaries would reduce the number of on-site staff to minimum possible levels and all non-essential staff would return home. Reduced staffing levels resulted in a lower level of wellfield development activity and, in consequence, a reduction in production volumes. Kazatomprom returned staffing levels at its uranium mines to normal by the end of August.

In January 2021, 128 (out of 666) employees and contractors at Katco (a Kazatomprom-Orano joint venture) tested positive for coronavirus. Katco operates the Moinkum and Tortkuduk mine sites in the Turkistan region of Kazakhstan. The company said that due to the case count, several non-core site activities were to be suspended.

Kazatomprom and its subsidiaries were included in the priority group of Kazakhstan's population for vaccination.

Kazatomprom produced 19,477 tU 2020, down significantly from 22,808 tU in 2019. Production increased to 21,918 tU in 2021.

At the Cigar Lake uranium mine in northern Saskatchewan, Canada, production was temporarily suspended and the facility placed in safe care and maintenance mode during the Covid-19 pandemic. This reduced the workforce onsite from around 300 to 35, enabling improved physical distancing and enhanced safety precautions. In addition, production was suspended at the McClean Lake uranium mill, where ore from Cigar Lake is normally processed. Cameco restarted production at Cigar Lake in September, and Orano restarted McClean Lake in the same month. However, both facilities were again suspended in December 2020 following a rise in cases in Saskatchewan. Both facilities restarted in April 2021.

All mining, including uranium mining, was initially suspended in South Africa. Harmony Gold Mining Company announced that during the lockdown to end of April 2020, operations at its underground mines would restart, but at no more than 50% of capacity. Mines were allowed to reopen in the country from 1 June.

In Namibia, the Rössing uranium mine, which is located in the Erongo region, discontinued normal mining operations and entered a period of minimal mining operations. As a safety measure critical maintenance work continued. Namibia’s President Hage Geingob said on April 14 that a partial lockdown would remain in force at mining operations for a further two-and-a-half weeks until May 4. Mining operations in Namibia resumed after that date.

At the Lance Project in Wyoming, USA, Peninsula Energy decided in April 2020 to suspend until further notice any non-essential site activities.

Conversion, enrichment and fuel fabrication

In Canada, the Cameco UF6 plant at the Port Hope Conversion Facility was placed in a temporary safe shutdown state for about four weeks and, where possible, maintenance work scheduled for the summer was advanced. Since the majority of the UO3 produced at the Blind River refinery is used to produce UF6 at the conversion facility, the refinery’s production was also temporarily suspended and, where possible, summer maintenance work brought forward. Both facilities restarted in May 2020.

Reactor operations

The reduction in industrial and other activity in countries taking countermeasures against Covid-19 had the effect of reducing overall electricity demand.

In South Africa electricity demand fell by 7000-9000 GW. Eskom took some generation units offline, and from midnight of 3 April 2020 added Koeberg 2 to these units. Eskom also notified wind power producers that it may have to curtail their supply access to the grid.

Koeberg 2 was brought back online in July 2020 to help relieve pressure on the generation system during the winter season.

In Sweden the restart of Ringhals was initially delayed because of supressed market prices. However, in June, Ringhals AB entered into an agreement with the transmission operator Svenska Kraftnät to restart the unit to secure the voltage stability and short-circuit power needed to handle the operating situation in Sweden during summer.

In China some reactors reduced their power output according to the requirements of the grid. As countermeasures were lifted plants returned to full power.

The fall in electricity demand in France, combined with rescheduled and altered maintenance outages, meant that cumulative production from nuclear for 2020 was a record low of 335.4 TWh.

EDF in April reduced its estimates for annual nuclear output to 330-360 TWh for both 2021 and 2022. The company later revised its 2022 output estimate to 300-330 TWh due to ongoing issues with pipe defects.

In Ukraine, Energoatom temporarily withdrew from service three of its 15 nuclear power units in line with forecasts of reduced electricity demand during the coronavirus pandemic. The projected balance of electricity production by Ukraine's nuclear power plants in 2020 has decreased by 8.6%. Zaporozhe 2 was expected to be offline between 21 April and 30 June (71 days), Zaporozhe 6 between 10 May and 15 August (98 days), and Rovno 3 between 10 May and 4 August (87 days).

The Ukrainian government declared a state of emergency and ordered a lockdown for most of the country between 24 March and 24 April to slow the spread of coronavirus. It later extended the lockdown through 22 May, after allowing some non-essential businesses to reopen 11 May.

The lockdown triggered a power market crisis with demand for power dropping sharply in March and April, forcing the government to order Energoatom to shut units and reduce generation at several other reactors.

In Spain, in addition to outages carried out at Ascó and Almaraz (see below) two other reactors were run at reduced rates because of the lower overall demand during the peak of the pandemic.

In the United Kingdom output from the Sizewell B plant was reduced on 12 May 2020 to help with grid management. EDF agreed with the National Grid to operate the plant at half its usual output until 24 September.

In some cases working hours arrangements were modified to account for working conditions during the pandemic. In the USA the Nuclear Regulatory Commission granted exemptions from work-hour controls to seven nuclear power plants.

Reactor outages

In Spain the Ascó nuclear plant in Tarragona and Almaraz in Cáceres rescheduled their outages for fuel loading. Both outages were delayed, and additional work was carried out at Almaraz to enable the plant to operate without the need for an additional outage later in 2020, so that it could help meet the increase in demand as the economy recovered.

The outage planned in Slovakia for Mochovce 1 starting at the end of March was revised to focus only on the most important work based on approval by the Slovak Nuclear Regulatory Authority, hence minimizing the number of people required and their social interaction on the nuclear power plant premises. The main goal of the Mochovce nuclear power plant outage was to replace about one-fifth of the fuel in the reactor and to carry out repairs and investment projects to increase the plant's safety. 

At the Bruce nuclear power plant in Canada activities on the Major Component Replacement project, which will extend the plant's operating lifetime, were narrowed to essential tasks to allow Bruce Power to focus on generating electricity and production of cobalt-60 for medical sterilization.

In the USA, DTE Energy announced it would consider the scope and duration of a service outage at Fermi 2 in Michigan.

The scheduled refuelling and maintenance outage at Tennessee Valley Authority's Sequoya 2 was reduced in scope. This reduced the amount of work required for this outage, significantly reducing the number of supplemental workers that would be brought on-site.

Czech Republic utility CEZ extended the ongoing outage of its 498 MWe Dukovany unit 3 until the start of May 2020, in part because of low power demand. Extra inspection and maintenance on the reactor's primary circuit were added to the initial workload. Most of the planned maintenance and investment work was completed and the loading of new fuel was finished in early April.

EDF announced that execution of work that was due to be performed during maintenance outages in France was significantly affected, thereby reducing power output capacity.


Activities at some construction sites were impacted and new working practices introduced.

At the Hinkley Point C plant under construction in the UK staff numbers were cut by more than half in response to the country's lockdown in March 2020. Site workers using local accommodation were housed at Hinkley Point C’s two campus sites and extra buses for travel on-site were provided to reduce the number of workers using each bus. In January 2021 EDF raised its cost estimate for Hinkley Point C to £22-23 billion (i.e. £500 million higher than the cost estimate given in September 2019) owing to delays due to coronavirus. In May 2022, the company announced a further one-year delay to the start-up of unit 1 along with a £3 billion rise in the cost of the overall project.

Work halted on some reactors under construction in China. As work gradually resumed, countermeasures were introduced for the employees returning to site. In January 2022, it was announced that the operation of two Hualong One reactors, under construction at the Fangchenggang site, would be delayed due to Covid-19. Units 3&4 at the site are now expected to be operational in late 2022 and 2024 respectively.

A total of seven Russian-designed reactors are being constructed in Bangladesh, Belarus, India, and Turkey. Rosatom General Director Alexey Likhachov said on 1 April 2020 that the company was working to give Rosatom personnel on construction sites abroad the chance to return home during the Covid-19 crisis. 

At the Genkai plant in Japan construction on a backup control centre was temporarily halted on 14 April 2020 after a worker involved in the engineering work tested positive for Covid-19.

In India, the progress of under construction reactors was affected by difficulities sourcing components.

Waste management and decommissioning

At the Sellafield site in Cumbria, UK, the Magnox reprocessing plant was shut down as a precaution to prepare it for restart. The Magnox reprocessing plant treats fuel that was used in the UK Magnox reactors, the first generation of reactors used in the country. The plant was scheduled to close in 2020, however, due to a readjustment of schedule amidst the Covid-19 pandemic, it reopened in August the same year. The plant eventually closed in late July 2022 after almost 45 years of operation.

In the northwest of France operations at the La Hague reprocessing plant were also suspended, but have since resumed.


A number of inspectors from the UK's Office for Nuclear Regulation were continuing to travel to sites where required, but as much business as possible was being carried out by phone, email and Skype.

France's regulator, ASN, removed non-essential direct physical contact to limit the spread of the virus and gave priority to the control of operating facilities.

Reactor planning

In Bulgaria, government pushed back the deadline for the submission of offers for a tender to select an investor for the construction of the planned two-unit Belene nuclear power plant. Investors were given a further 4-6 weeks. Measures taken as a result of the coronavirus outbreak limited access to the project's data room.

In the UK, EDF delayed its application for the Development Consent Order (DCO) to build Sizewell C until May 2020, two months later than planned "in recognition of the extraordinary circumstances created by the coronavirus". EDF also allowed more time for people to register as participants for the public examination phase of the DCO process. EDF liaised with the Planning Inspectorate to discuss how normal arrangements could be implemented so that communities were not disadvantaged by the difficult circumstances.

Nuclear technology to help combat Covid-19

Nuclear technologies have medical applications that help combat Covid-19. The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) is providing diagnostic kits, equipment and training in nuclear-derived detection techniques to countries asking for assistance in tackling the worldwide spread of the novel coronavirus causing Covid-19.

In China, industrial irradiation facilities were made available for the treatment of medical supplies, not only to destroy the coronavirus, but also to disinfect and sterilize medical supplies to remove any other virus or bacteria.

In Russia, irradiation facilities were used to sterilize millions of medical masks and lab kits to test for Covid-19.

In addition, maintaining the operation of reactors used for the preparation of medical isotopes allows for the continued use of these vital materials for the diagnosis and treatment of other illnesses.

Nuclear Power in the World Today