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United States: NRC to Ease Regulatory Burdens During Pandemic

Copyright © 2021 Energy Intelligence Group

Already in the crosshairs of anti-nuclear groups for a major, multiyear regulatory overhaul, the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) found itself in the firing line again this week when it announced steps to help operators through the cornonavirus pandemic -- including relaxing work-hour limits and deferring inspections. While acquiescing in these respects, the agency's critics noted, the NRC is doing nothing to curtail a spate of scheduled refuelings this spring which require hundreds of temporary workers to travel to various reactor communities to complete their specialist tasks. More than 300 participants from across the country, including industry officials and staff of anti-nuclear organizations, dialed into an NRC conference call Apr. 2 to discuss easing measures related to the Covid-19 crisis, now widely believed to be in the early stages of a massive upward trajectory in the US. This was an unusually large number of participants for such calls, demonstrating a level of interest in the NRC's crisis response probably not seen since Sep. 11, 2001. While some activists and state and local officials called on nuclear operators to forgo refueling outages and instead shut down their reactors to protect workers and neighboring communities, industry officials on the call insisted the generation is needed to meet increased summer demand. Precisely how much demand will emerge over summer months remains an open question considering that electricity usage is falling in a number of states and jurisdictions where nonessential services and business are shutting down to address the public health emergency. Among the steps taken by NRC officials to ease regulatory burdens on nuclear operators, the agency increased its 72-hour weekly limit for plant workers to 86 hours to cover for any Covid-19-related worker absences. Operators will also be allowed to delay certain inspections scheduled to take place during refuelings this year until the next ones, typically 18 months away. While the onus is on operators to make a strong case why such relief should be granted, agency officials said, it remains to be seen how this plays out in practice. For starters, the agency decided against issuing an Enforcement Guidance Memorandum to NRC staff outlining a process for dealing with such requests, saying they should be left up to technical staff to decide. This suggests that a certain amount of guesswork -- and subjectivity -- will be involved in decision-making, with outside observers and critics left mostly in the dark about how decisions are being made. The NRC evidently believes it should play no role in preventing the possible spread of Covid-19 through the influx of temporary workers during refueling outages and is therefore not coordinating with state and local health offices over the issue. "It's the responsibility of those [state and local health] offices to gather the information they need on the ground using their own resources," NRC Director of Nuclear Reactor Regulation Ho Nieh said in response to criticism from activists during the conference call. "But again, the NRC's actions are meant to ensure both the safe operation of US nuclear power plants and do everything that can be done to ensure that the workforce at those plants is available to perform the actions that are required to continue that type of operation." Nieh is one of the prime movers in the NRC's Regulatory Oversight Process (ROP), a suite of roughly 20 regulatory programs for overseeing all safety-related aspects of reactor operations, and through which the industry aims to reduce the number and frequency of inspections, among other things (NIW Aug.9'19). Nieh wrote in a Mar. 28 letter that work-hour exemptions will apply specifically to licensees that experience reduced staffing levels due to the Covid-19 crisis and can no longer meet the 72-hour weekly limit. Other operator requests for regulatory relief will be examined on a case-by-case basis, such as delays to maintenance and repairs. Activists are concerned the agency's approach to the Covid-19 crisis has left the door wide open for regulatory rollbacks that could compromise the safety of the nation's aging reactor fleet. "It's clear that the NRC is ready to permit whatever rollbacks the industry is willing to request," Beyond Nuclear's Kevin Kamps told Energy Intelligence. "How inspections, repairs and replacements of safety-significant systems, structures and components can go undone, and not increase risk, has not been adequately explained by NRC, nor has the agency addressed the potential impacts of decreased quality of work, or even serious human errors, made by a dwindling number of severely fatigued workers, under the increasing stress of the Covid-19 pandemic." Regulatory Relief Over the past weekend, the NRC verbally approved inspection delays at the Exelon's Limerick plant in Pennsylvania and Arizona Public Service's Palo Verde plant due to the coronavirus. Although details have not yet been made publicly available, NRC spokesperson Scott Burnell told Energy Intelligence that "Limerick asked to delay inspections of motor-operated valves until the next outage" and "Palo Verde asked to delay reactor inspections of reactor vessel bottom-mounted instrumentation nozzles and a pressurizer surge line nozzle weld overlay until the next outage." Nieh told participants on the Apr. 2 call that requests to defer inspections must be "very narrowly focused" on "nondisruptive examination activities" and indicated the agency will not provide relief for inspection of more critical components like steam generators and reactor vessel heads (NIW Mar.15'13). Many reactors have over the decades increased the number of steam generator tubes to maximize output, but that has at times led to degradation and rupture. The problem of rapidly decaying steam generator tubing, for example, was discovered after a steam generator leak at the San Onofre nuclear plant that led to the plant's permanent shutdown in 2012 (NIW Aug.31'12). Exelon is seeking to delay a steam generator inspection at its Braidwood plant in Illinois to a refueling outage in 18 months because it will require more than 170 employees from across the US "to mobilize on-site," even though a refueling outage scheduled for mid-April will require about 1,000 contractors on-site. In a separate NRC call on Apr. 1, NRC staff told Exelon they would have to complete full operational assessment by Apr. 7 for NRC staff to adequately consider the request. Local governments and activists, meanwhile, are accusing reactor operators of implementing lackluster social distancing precautions during the refueling outages. Montgomery County officials in Pennsylvania, for example, this week criticized Exelon for proceeding with a refueling outage at its Limerick nuclear power plant. This involved bringing an estimated 1,800 people on-site, many of whom traveled to the area for the work and are staying in local hotels and frequenting local businesses still open. The rural county, about 30 miles northwest from Philadelphia, this week reported 10 Covid-19-related deaths, with just under 600 individuals testing positive for the viral disease. NextEra's Seabrook nuclear plant in New Hampshire, FirstEnergy's Davis-Besse plant in Ohio and DTE Energy's Fermi-2 nuclear power plant in Michigan are among other nuclear plants entering refueling outages, despite concerns about the impact of their traveling contractor workforce on permanent local populations. Jessica Sondgeroth, Washington jsondgeroth@energyintel.com

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