While the COVID-19 pandemic presents ongoing challenges marked by border closures, and health care systems worldwide strained to their limits, the safety practices inherent with nuclear technologies have ensured the safe and successful continuation of radiation applications globally. As part of the IAEA International Conference on Radiation Safety last week, participants at the roundtable What Can Radiation Protection Learn from the COVID-19 Pandemic discussed the impact of the coronavirus outbreak on operational capabilities of nuclear and related facilities, on ensuring the safety of radiation sources and highlighted the needs of countries during this unprecedented period.
“The session gave insights to the issues being faced by countries and provided guidance in response to crisis situations which are likely to shape the future development of the system of radiation protection,” said Michael Hajek, an IAEA External Dosimetry Specialist and rapporteur of the roundtable.
Nuclear industry and COVID-19
As an important source of electrical power, the resilience of the nuclear industry is key in providing electricity safely and reliably during a pandemic situation. But maintenance of operations comes with challenges due to associated travel restrictions, the impact of the pandemic on transportation and supply of needed resources, adjustment to remote working arrangements and implementation of enforced COVID-19 hygiene practices. Measures taken to combat these challenges included staggered working shifts, physical distancing and the use of personal protective equipment like gloves and masks to limit the transmission of the virus.
“Using the experience from actual events and drills, our industry has worked together with the community such as the local authorities and hospitals in order to set additional safety measures and standards,” said Catrin Baureus Koch, a member of the World Nuclear Association Radiation Protection Working Group and a presenter at the roundtable. “People working where there is a risk of radiological contamination are aware of how the contamination can be transferred, this knowledge in dealing with something that cannot be seen or noticed by our senses is very useful in the work of protecting each other from COVID-19.”
On ensuring the safe continuation of nuclear and related services, surveillance cameras were also used in some cases to replace in-person monitoring, such as at the Federal Authority for Nuclear Regulation in Abu Dhabi which relied on electronic licencing services during the COVID-19 pandemic. This service allows for licences to be issued for regulated activities, ensuring that projects remain on track and follow safety standards and operating procedures. “Remote supervision and communication have been used for quite some time in the nuclear industry, but the pandemic took this to another level,” said Koch.
Preparation for the Future
To collect best practices and assess challenges related to radiation protection during the pandemic, the IAEA conducted a survey entitled Impact of COVID-19 Pandemic on the Regulatory Activities for the Safety of Radiation Sources, to which counterparts from 123 countries responded. The goal of this survey was to gain insight on how these countries are impacted due to COVID-19 and whether there are any implications of the new experience that would need to be reflected in the IAEA Safety Standards Series.
The survey results brought to light potential safety risks which emerged alongside the COVID-19 pandemic and ways to deal with them. With the heightened role of radiological imaging in the diagnosis and treatment of COVID-19, more individuals – both patients and medical experts – were seen to potentially be subject to radiation exposures due to a high number of radiological exams carried out that did not result in sufficient individual benefit or did not comply with diagnostic reference levels for dose optimization. Additionally, while 85 percent of countries reported a reduction in regulatory activities – in some cases because of access restrictions to nuclear facilities or budget cuts, – they also reported mechanisms had been put in place to ensure that safety was not compromised.
National experts also offered views on which areas they are seeking IAEA support. These include guidance on regulatory activities in crisis situations such as the COVID-19 pandemic and development of specific radiation safety recommendations to be applied in future pandemic situations.
Challenges have also emerged in reference to availability of radiation safety technical services. According to the survey results, disruption in services occured at times during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Meeting participants agreed that actions taken in response to risk and situations beyond the applicability of current laws and codes need to be guided by ethical values including dignity of the individual, prudence and transparency.
“There are striking parallels between the COVID-19 pandemic and the radiation concerns we commonly experience,” said Jim Malone, Professor of Medical Physics at Trinity College Dublin. “Both share invisibility which can be frightening, both deal with uncertainties − scientific and otherwise, although those from COVID-19 are greater than radiation uncertanties we normally encounter.”