Study examines impact of pandemic on UK nuclear security

24 February 2022

A new study from King's College London explores how the UK's civil nuclear sector has responded to the challenges posed by the COVID-19 pandemic, with a focus on the organisational level. It identifies a series of lessons learnt in maintaining nuclear security and provides recommendations for managing the continuing impact of the pandemic and preparing for future crises.

(Image: King's College London)

The study, from the Nuclear Security Culture Programme in the Centre for Science and Security Studies (CSSS), King's College London, and conducted in partnership with industry, says the COVID-19 pandemic has had a significant impact on the nuclear sector and its critical national infrastructure.

"This has complicated the delivery of security, in an environment where threats are continually evolving, both from malicious actors taking advantage of perceived weaknesses, and as a by-product of the broader uncertainty generated by the pandemic," the study says.

"While the pandemic's impact and responses to it have varied from country to country, there exist common challenges faced by the nuclear sector. These include an increase in worker absenteeism due to infections and enforced isolation, restrictions on onsite numbers and the proximity of staff to minimise the risk of transmission, a large-scale transition to remote working and disruption to key supply chains."

The nuclear industry therefore had to adapt to changing security risks, the study notes. In order to generate insights into successful adaptations, the researchers conducted semi-structured interviews with practitioners from eight different UK nuclear organisations spanning government, the Office for Nuclear Regulation (ONR), transport, nuclear research and energy production, all with direct responsibility for nuclear security.

Interviewees were asked about both their organisation's initial response to the pandemic and how this has evolved over time. The interviews were conducted over a period of six months from early- to mid-2021.

The study's key findings emphasise the importance of developing information gathering systems to respond to government decision-making on risk and security. However, these must be carefully constructed so as not to place unnecessary burden on nuclear operators.

Organisations should also regularly update their internal risk registers to account for new emerging threats and vulnerabilities. In the context of COVID-19, relatively few nuclear companies had a pandemic scenario within their top-10 risks, despite its clear prominence as a high-probability high-consequence event in the UK's national risk register.

The study further calls for an outcome-focused regulatory regime, which researchers believe offers advantages when responding to a crisis, as this can provide nuclear organisations with an important level of flexibility and autonomy to modify security arrangements at sites to meet changing operational requirements.

The researchers also advocate an increased focus on security culture during a crisis, given the rapid changes in operations and the uncertainty this generates within a workforce.

With the rapid move to home working precipitated by the COVID-19 pandemic, there was therefore a need to raise awareness of potential security risks in relation to remote information management and digital communications, while also maintaining staff morale through developing new approaches to protect the wellbeing of staff.

"The findings of this research are not intended to be exhaustive. They may also not apply in all contexts, given how nuclear security remains the responsibility of states, which often take different approaches to its implementation at the national level," the study notes.

"Nevertheless, given the overarching international legal requirements and common operating principles that serve to inform and shape the design of nuclear security systems, we anticipate many of the lessons identified in the brief will be relevant for others."

"This research, provides new insights into how nuclear security has been implemented at the operational level, following the onset of COVID-19," said Christopher Hobbs, director of King’s Institute for Applied Security Studies and one of the authors of the study.

"It is clear that the pandemic has both presented challenges to the delivery of nuclear security and opportunities for organisations to advance a range of alternative security solutions. Here it is essential that innovation is balanced with pragmatism and the consideration of broader risks."

Researched and written by World Nuclear News