The agency that regulates nuclear power in the U.S. is preparing to allow reactor operators to work longer shifts, and could also issue new rules that would let facilities put off some maintenance and plant inspections. The actions are in response to the coronavirus pandemic.
Comments during a Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) conference call on March 20 suggest that regulators expect nuclear plant operators could ask for hardship clauses to be invoked, to provide justification for allowing operational practices that divert from existing regulations. Bloomberg on March 23 reported that the agency could issue new guidelines for nuclear plant operation as soon as March 27.
Rob Taylor, a deputy director at the NRC’s office of nuclear reactor regulation, during the March 20 call said, “The hardship would specifically seem to apply to those inspections that require personnel and-or equipment to be brought on site that could inadvertently spread the COVID virus to plant personnel.” The agency is providing regular coronavirus updates on its website.
The NRC earlier this month said a “small number” of the agency’s workers were in self-imposed isolation after attending an event where other participants later tested positive for the virus, according to POWER’s sister publication, Exchange Monitor. The NRC earlier this month canceled its 32nd annual Regulatory Information Conference, scheduled for March 10-12 in North Bethesda, Maryland, due to the coronavirus outbreak.
No Hardship Requests Yet
The NRC has not to date received any requests to invoke a hardship clause, but Bloomberg reported that the changes are being considered due to the possibility that COVID-19 could infect nuclear plant employees, and subsequently impact maintenance plans.
Stephen Tait, a spokesperson for Michigan-based DTE Energy, told Bloomberg the utility will consider revising the “scope and duration” of a service outage at the Fermi 2 nuclear plant in Michigan “based on the impact of the pandemic.” The Fermi 2 reactor was powered down on March 21 for a planned refueling. That job usually last for several weeks, and involves hundreds of workers. Refueling involves replacement of nuclear-fuel rods, and means workers must conduct inspections and make needed repairs.
Environmental groups immediately expressed concern about changes to NRC rules. Kevin Kamps of Beyond Nuclear, a Maryland-based nuclear watchdog organization, told Bloomberg: “Regulations to ensure safety should be strengthened at a time like this— not weakened. It means operating nuclear plants without basic safety inspections.”
The NRC already is monitoring some nuclear plants remotely, including the Seabrook Station in New Hampshire. NextEra Energy, which owns the plant, said only essential personnel are at the plant, as the company has implemented its pandemic plan.
Lindsay Robertson, a NextEra spokesperson, in a statement March 20 said the plan “includes limiting access to our control centers to essential personnel only and putting various processes and procedures in place that are designed to limit the spread of the virus.” Robertson said the company has been encouraging its workers to follow guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the World Health Organization to protect themselves and others from the virus per NextEra’s “standard preparedness protocol.”
“We have a strong track record of preparing for many kinds of emergencies, and we are prepared to respond to the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic,” Robertson said.
Diane Screnci, spokesperson for the NRC, said the commission is continuing oversight of the Seabrook plant and other facilities licensed by the commission, with much of the work done by phone. Screnci said NRC inspectors are on-site at some plants, though less frequently, doing most of their work remotely.
“The resident inspectors have been to the plant … and they are continuing to do oversight, but they’re doing a lot of it by telework,” Screnci said. “If there’s a safety issue, they’re ready to go in, and they can remotely monitor plant systems, and they can gather information working from home.”
To read the NRC’s COVID-19 update, visit this page.
Here is more of POWER’s coverage of the coronavirus’ impacts on the power generation industry:
—Darrell Proctor is associate editor for POWER (@DarrellProctor1, @POWERmagazine).