- In response to the COVID-19 pandemic and its strain on available nuclear plant personnel, the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission is allowing power reactor operators to apply for temporary exemptions from regulations limiting the amount of hours workers can stay on the job, according to a letter released by the agency on Monday.
- In addition, the NRC staff is also working on a separate memorandum that will guide nuclear plants as to which labor and time-intensive tasks they can temporarily waive, such as many of the inspections during refueling outages.
- Nuclear reactors have already been enacting contingency plans designed to limit the amount of workers onsite in order to avoid exposure to the coronavirus. It is unknown how long nuclear reactors will need operate with these reductions in staff and maintenance tasks, and whether they can stay running as often as they do in normal times.
In order to avoid "worker fatigue," the NRC has a number of rules about the maximum length of plant employee shifts, as well as requirements for breaks workers must take between long shifts. For example, shift may not exceed 16 hours in a 24-hour period, 26 hours in a 48-hour period and 72 hours in a 7-day period.
But in light of the "unprecedented time for our country" created by the COVID-19 pandemic and in order to ensure that the regulations "do not unduly limit licensee flexibility in using personnel resources to most effectively manage the impacts" of the pandemic, the NRC is allowing plants who believe they cannot meet the work hour limits to apply for a 60-day exemption, according to the letter.
In order to receive an exemption, however, plants must show that they will still maintain "alternative" controls on work hours, such as no more than 16 hours of work in a 24-hour period and no more than 86 hours in a 7-day period.
The pandemic has led nuclear plant owners to try to limit staff physically present at plants to "essential" personnel. Workers include "those required to maintain and operate the plant safely including operators, maintenance, engineering, radiation protection, security and related functions," Doug True, chief nuclear officer for the industry trade association the Nuclear Energy Institute, told Utility Dive.
But the cuts in workforce present do create "limitations," True said, that could, depending on the specific circumstances at an individual plant, "impact the ability to conduct or complete certain testing or inspection."
An example, discussed at a public meeting held by the NRC on Thursday, would be inspections of the tubes in the steam generator for cracks and other defects, which takes place during outages.
The NRC staff is currently working on a memorandum that will give reactors guidance as to which inspections and other tasks they will be able to defer and for how long, according to an agency spokesperson.
Edwin Lyman, director of nuclear power safety for the Union of Concerned Scientists, argues that limiting these inspections and other activities has a tradeoff with risk.
For example, not inspecting steam generator tubes "increases the possibility of a tube leak or rupture during operation that might required a costly shutdown or worse," Lyman told Utility Dive. "The key question here is how much additional risk will the NRC allow nuclear plants to accept in order to keep them running during this crisis?"
The Nuclear Energy Institute, however, contends that safety protocols have anticipated instances where important inspections might need to be postponed. "Current requirements contain provisions that permit utilities to reschedule work under limited circumstances, typically until the next refueling outage, provided a sound technical justification ensures safety is not compromised," True said. "Such technical justification is based on plant and component specific information and benefit from analyses and knowledge accumulated over decades of operating experience."
Duke Energy, one of the biggest nuclear plant owners and operators in the Southeast, has been taking steps to reduce potential virus exposure, including allowing employees whose work can be done virtually from outside the plant to work off-site, according to Duke spokesperson Rita Sipe. These changes have not affected the abilities of Duke’s reactors to operate at their normal power levels, she told Utility Dive, and could not speculate on how the plants’ operations will be affected if these new staffing arrangements must continue beyond the short-term.
"We have plans in place to protect critical operations staff and ensure we can safely and reliably operate our stations throughout this event," Kenneth Holt, spokesperson for Dominion Energy, operator of the North Anna and Surry nuclear plants in Virginia and the Millstone nuclear plant in Connecticut, told Utility Dive.
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story used a former title for Edward Lyman. He is the director of nuclear power safety at the Union of Concerned Scientists.