“Working in a nuclear power plant is completely safe”
Óscar Martínez is a Doctor of Medicine and Surgery specialised in Occupational Medicine, and Director of Nuclear Medicine Sites. Since 1997 he works as a doctor at the Cofrentes Nuclear Power Plant (Valencia, Spain) and has overseen the Medical Service since January 2015. “I find it compelling to be a doctor for plant workers and take care of their everyday life”, he says. Regarding the pandemic, he acknowledges that his work and that of his team “has changed many things, and it has been tough.” Guaranteeing workers’ health has been a priority, both during lockdown and now. “We have to be proud,” he assures, since “we have managed to keep our nuclear power plants functioning safely, both regarding the workers’ health and the site’s operation.”
You have worked at the Medical Services of the Cofrentes Nuclear Power Plant for almost 24 years. What is a doctor’s day like in a nuclear power plant?
It is a very varied job. On one hand you are a specialist in Occupational Medicine and a member of the Prevention Service, and on the other hand you are in charge of monitoring the health of workers that are professionally exposed to ionizing radiations. If you like your job, as is my case, you can develop various professional aspects and develop relationships, both personal and with institutions. However, I must admit that, personally speaking, what I find most compelling is being the workers’ doctor on site and looking after them every day.
How has your work changed since the pandemic started?
It has been a real turning point, and it has been tough. It happened suddenly, we had to study a lot and read all the related information published in specialized media, keeping up with any changes in regulations. I must admit that belonging to work groups at the level of Iberdrola or the Nuclear Medical Team, and even being in contact with my old medical school classmates, were of great help in the exchange of information.
There has been a radical change, and although we had to carry on with our usual functions, at some point dedication was nearly absolute throughout the entire duration of the state of alarm. Those who know me say I only think about Coronavirus…
How are you managing all the sanitary and anti-COVID protection measures?
Since we started to get the news from Italy we began to prepare. We created an ad hoc group at the site to stay ahead of any possible scenarios. We managed the pandemic from a multidisciplinary group; we meet first thing every day, including weekends and holidays. At these meetings we study the evolution of the pandemic in the areas close to the plant, the regulations of the state of alarm and the cases in workers, close contacts, possible and confirmed infections. We thoroughly study each situation and make decisions to reduce incidence. This way we managed to avoid internal outbreaks, which makes our work greatly satisfying.
“We managed to avoid internal outbreaks, which makes our work greatly satisfying”
Nuclear workers are considered essential. What protocols did you put in place during lockdown to maintain production and guarantee their health?
The first priority throughout the entire lockdown period was always to ensure the workers’ health. Having said this, production safety and reliability were always guaranteed.
“The workers’ safety and production reliability were always guaranteed during lockdown”
Measures such as reducing personnel on site, carrying out the tasks of specific groups working from home, adapting staff shifts to longer rest periods (in the event that we had to place people in confinement due to a positive case), and favouring “stable cohabiting” groups on site (each person always interacted with the same team) were of help, not only to preserve our staff’s health but also to support the plant’s operation with complete safety and guarantee of supply.
Can you describe the team working at the Medical Centre?
The most important thing at a time of crisis like this is to have a great team. I can confirm I have the best possible team, which they have proven during this pandemic. There are two doctors, two nurses, a clinical assistant for the mornings and three more nurses that rotate to cover the night shift.
What do people say to you when you mention that you work in a nuclear power plant?
It depends on the forum where I mention it. My medical peers consider it odd, but for occupational medicine specialists this job generates expectation, and they see it as a challenge. When I talk about it with people outside the medical realm they find it strange and usually ask a lot of questions; they are curious about it.
“For occupational medicine specialists, the job of medical doctor at a nuclear power plant generates expectation”
Why do you think this type of site is more accepted in nuclear areas?
Most people that live in the area know people who work at the plant, and they know how important safety is to us. They are also neighbours and relatives, and this generates trust, both in their jobs and the sites. Ultimately, there is greater acceptance because they know them better.
“In the area of nuclear sites they know the plants better and they know how important safety is to us”
In your opinion, is it safe to work in a nuclear power plant?
Certainly. After more than 24 years at the nuclear power plant in charge of workers’ health, I can confirm that yes, it is completely safe to work in a nuclear power plant.
What controls do all workers follow, more specifically the ones that are more exposed?
There are several controls in place. On one hand there is the radiological control by the radiological protection service, which is much more restrictive than the actual legislation, and on the other hand there are thorough annual medical examinations as well as daily health monitoring. All workers can easily access the medical services that are on site, and this makes monitoring much easier. In fact, there are studies that confirm that the health of nuclear power plant workers is better than in other sectors, and I believe it is thanks to these controls.
“Studies confirm that the health of workers in nuclear power plants is better than in other sectors”
What are the radiological protection protocols?
In this sense, as in many others, we are highly regulated at nuclear power plants and must comply with what is established on the Sanitary Protection Regulation on Protection Against Ionising Radiations. Generally speaking, all the protocols we follow at Cofrentes are focused on minimising radiological risks for workers, the general public and the environment, and we are quite satisfied with the results obtained. In fact, 2020 has been the year with les collective doses in the history of Cofrentes. Externally, the surveillance done through the Environmental Radiation Monitoring Program proves that the impact of the plant on its environment is imperceptible.
Do you share experiences with doctors from other nuclear power plants?
Of course. Through the Medical Nuclear Group we have periodic meetings where we share our problems and the solutions applied, making use of the operative experience in each site. They are not just excellent professionals; they are also good friends, and this makes communication a lot easier.
It is said that occupational health is a priority in nuclear power plants, and the accident rate is very low. What set of factors make this true?
I would define it with two words: safety culture. I think that at nuclear power plants safety is a priority that is extended to all areas, of which occupational health would be one of the most important. We are used to complying with work protocols, and this way tasks are carried out in a safer way.
“At nuclear power plants, safety is a priority that is extended to all areas”
How do you see the COVID situation at the national level, and the advances in the vaccination process?
It is complicated. It depends on the evolution of the new Sars-Cov-2 variants and the vaccination process. It is of key importance to have an extensive vaccination plan for the general population, and the sooner the better. This would prevent developing more variants. The less the virus is replicated the fewer possibilities of new mutations being generated, and that is why it is so important to avoid infection until most of the population is vaccinated.
Would you like to share some of your interests with our readers?
They are more limited lately. I really like to go out to the countryside on my mountain bike, I like nature and I consider myself fortunate because I live in a privileged environment. I also really enjoy meeting with friends and I love to talk about all issues, although lately we had to suspend these reunions. Lastly, I love travelling with my family, something which has also been affected by Covid19. I hope we can get it back in the near future.
“I am very proud of the workers at Cofrentes for their responsibility and commitment during this pandemic”
Would you like to add anything?
We have gone through and are still going experiencing an exceptional situation that we would have never imagined. However, thanks to a lot of work and many sacrifices it seems that we are seeing the end of it. At the professional level we have managed to keep our nuclear power plants operating safely, both regarding the health of workers and the plant itself. This gives us an idea of the professionals working at these sites and the strength of the organisations. For all these reasons we should feel proud; I am proud of my work team with its top performance, and of all the workers at the Cofrentes Nuclear Power Plant for their responsibility and commitment during this pandemic.