United States: A Patchwork Response to Covid-19 Cases at Nuclear Plants

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As the number of confirmed Covid-19 cases at US nuclear power plants rises, gaps in emergency planning, regulatory guidance and operator response measures are emerging. Operators are doing their utmost to keep their plants running, in some cases cutting corners when it comes to "social distancing" or using it as a reason for delaying necessary repairs. Meanwhile, the influx of thousands of temporary workers at refueling sites is prompting efforts by activists and state and local officials seeking more protection against the spreading virus -- particularly from those workers who may be infected but are asymptomatic. "Virus is like a Trojan horse coming in on workers that are asymptomatic," says Paul Gunter of Maryland-based Beyond Nuclear. "They're pursuing these refuelings without consideration where regions could strategically power down ... to reinforce workers who are heavily debilitated by virus." In Pennsylvania, State Sen. Katie Muth described parts of the Limerick plant -- particularly entrance screening -- as "a giant Petri dish" (related). As the pandemic moves into an acute stage in many parts of the US, Energy Intelligence has identified a number of voids and inconsistencies in the response to the coronavirus by both regulators and operators that are potentially exacerbating its spread, endangering not only nuclear power plant workers but also the communities in which they live. These include the lack of any assessment so far as to whether in the midst of the pandemic reactor emergency plans would suffice to limit the spread of radiation after a severe accident. Beyond that, NRC guidance to plant operators is silent on certain required procedures that could be exacerbating the spread of Covid-19; nor is it making any effort to use its status as a federal regulator to coordinate health and safety or other measures -- such as delayed and staggered refuelings -- that could help thwart the contagion. In an email NRC spokesperson Scott Burnell said that, the NRC's statutory authority only extends to protecting public health and safety "from radiological consequences, and that sets a boundary on our authority" and that "OSHA’s [Occupational Safety and Health Administration] guidelines cover worker safety in regard to Covid-19. ... Since plants need enough staff to meet NRC requirements, they have a strong incentive to follow OSHA and keep their workers healthy." The response by operators to the pandemic varies from plant to plant, but there are already several cases where "social distancing" has been used as the primary reason for delaying necessary plant repairs, while refueling and other activities that can't be done with social distancing are expedited to ensure the plants are up and running as quickly as possible. "Between the multitasking, stress and fatigue of a normal refueling outage in conjunction with the anxiety of Covid-19, I can understand how the distractions may be overwhelming" an official at Arkansas Nuclear One said in an Apr. 2 email to staff disclosing a third confirmed Covid-19 case at the plant. "Therefore, I am asking all of you to please try to focus on the task at hand, no matter what it is." The Entergy plant is one of 32 plants in 21 states with scheduled spring refuelings, according to the Nuclear Energy Institute (see table). Social Distancing Problems While utilities are at pains to emphasize the importance they place on worker health and safety, they are also determined to keep their plants running at full power for as long as they can, which in some cases means expediting refueling outages by requesting -- and virtually always getting -- NRC exemptions for scheduled repairs (NIW Apr.3'20). At the start of its Limerick-1 refueling on Mar. 28, Exelon requested a delay in suppression pool inspections on the basis it would be "detrimental to the occupational health and safety of the workforce and result in the potential to spread the virus" and said it needed approval by Mar. 31. Yet it admitted in the same letter to the NRC that many refueling activities "involve close contact and a limit to social distancing." While operators argue that delaying repairs won't impair safety and will help reduce staffing levels at their plants, critics say that basing it on concerns about social distancing is disingenuous considering their unwillingness to reschedule refuelings when it might still be possible. "Owners are cherry-picking when to invoke social distancing and when to revoke it. That's borderline criminal," says Lochbaum. The NRC's Burnell told Energy Intelligence that "At this point the plants cannot simply 'reduce power,' they must shut down once neutron 'poisons' build up in the fuel and prevent an ongoing efficient chain reaction. It would have required planning months ago to even consider 'staggering' outages at this point." Lochbaum agreed that refueling must take place "once the core is used up" but said "refueling outages later this spring and this fall could be rescheduled to stagger them" and that the NRC could play a role in such rescheduling. "Depending on place in line, reactors might need to reduce power to reach their window while some might not." Lochbaum said that the NRC or some other federal agency needs to issue guidance about common procedures, such as subjecting long lines of workers entering secure areas of a nuclear plant to explosives detectors that blow air between the shoulders and ankles to pick up any trace of explosives material on the worker. "With a worker standing between the puffer and collector, the air flow bends around the body, causing some of the air to miss the collector. The security station is an enclosed area. Any air, and virus in it, bypassing the collector fills that space." Meanwhile, Energy Intelligence confirmed this week that the Federal Emergency Management Agency (Fema), which in the US is the sole authority for determining the adequacy of offsite emergency plans and preparedness, has so far not conducted any emergency planning reviews for nuclear power plants to assess whether they would suffice in the event of a severe accident. Such reviews are required during during a "pandemic outbreak" or when "other events occur or are anticipated that may impact the ability to effectively implement offsite EP plans and procedures," according to the NRC protocols governing offsite emergency preparedness. "As of the end of last week at least, we were informed by Fema that they had not initiated a Preliminary Capabilities Assessment or Disaster Initiated Review for any of our licensees," NRC spokesperson Dave McIntyre told Energy Intelligence. Stephanie Cooke, Washington Expected US Nuclear Plant Refueling Outages in 2020 Plant City State Company Approx. Start Browns Ferry Athens AL Tennesee Valley Authority Mid Feb Grand Gulf Port Gibson MS Entergy Mid Feb Brunswick Southport NC Duke Energy Progress Late Feb David Besse Oak Harbor OH First Energy Late Feb Byron Byron IL Exelon Early Mar Nine Mile Oswego NY Exelon Early Mar Vogtle Augusta GA Southern Nuclear Operating Co. Early Mar South Texas Project Wadsworth TX STP Nuclear Operating Co. Early Mar Arkansas Nuclear One Russellville AR Entergy Early Mar Point Beach Two Rivers WI NextEra (FPL) Early Mar Salem Hancocks Bridge NJ PSEG Early Mar Fermi Frenchtown Charter Twp. MI DTE Energy Mid Mar McGuire Huntersville NC Duke Energy Progress Mid Mar Susquehanna Berwick PA Talen Energy Mid Mar Sequoyah Soddy Daisy TN Tennesee Valley Authority Late Mar Beaver Valley Shippingport PA First Energy Late Mar Limerick Pottstown PA Exelon Late Mar Quad Cities Cordova IL Exelon Late Mar Turkey Point Florida City FL Florida Power & Light Late Mar Seabrook Seabrook NH NextEra Energy Early Apr Salem Hancocks Bridge NJ PSEG Early Apr Palo Verde Tonopah AZ Arizona Public Service Co. Early Apr Comanche Peak Glen Rose TX Luminant Early Apr Ginna Ontario NY Exelon Early Apr Oconee Seneca SC Duke Energy Early Apr VC Summer Jenkinsville SC Dominion Energy Early Apr Millstone Waterford CT Dominion Energy Early Apr Braidwood Braceville IL Exelon Mid Apr Watts Bar Spring City TN Tennesee Valley Authority Mid Apr Catawba York SC Duke Energy Early May Surry Surry VA Dominion Energy Early May Indian Point Buchanan NY Entergy Early May Palisades Covert MI Entergy Late Aug North Anna Mineral VA Dominion Energy Early Sep Robinson Hartsville SC Duke Energy Progress Early Sep Vogtle Augusta GA Southern Nuclear Operating Co. Early Sep Fitzpatrick Oswego NY Exelon Early Sep Prairie Island Welch MN Northern States Power Early Sep DC Cook Bridgman MI AEP Mid Sep McGuire Huntersville NC Duke Energy Mid Sep Cooper Brownville NE Nebraska Public Power District Mid Sep Waterford Killona LA Entergy Mid Sep Point Beach Two Rivers WI NextEra (FPL) Early Oct Salem Hancocks Bridge NJ PSEG Early Oct Palo Verde Tonopah AZ Arizona Public Service Co. Early Oct Browns Ferry Athens AL Tennesee Valley Authority Early Oct Diablo Canyon Avila Beach CA Pacific Gas & Electric Early Oct Callaway Fulton MO Ameren Early Oct Byron Byron IL Exelon Early Oct Turkey Point Florida City FL Florida Power & Light Early Oct Farley Dothan AL southern Nuclear Operating Co. Early Oct Gomanche Peak Glen Rose TX Luminant Early Oct Peach Bottom Delta PA Exelon Mid Oct Millstone Waterford CT Dominion Energy Mid Oct Watts Bar Spring City TN Tennesee Valley Authority Mid Oct Duane Arnold Palo IA NextEra Energy Late Oct Source: Nuclear Energy Institute

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