WASHINGTON — As dozens of nuclear power plants prepare for intricate refueling operations this spring, they’ll be without the usual complement of on-site inspectors from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, which has told its monitors to work from home because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The agency and the primary industry group say the change in oversight does not pose a threat to the public.
“Nuclear power plants also have plans to maintain appropriate staffing under adverse conditions,” the agency said. “The NRC will require plants to shut down if they cannot appropriately staff their facilities.”
Still, the decision has raised alarm from the Union of Concerned Scientists.
Edwin Lyman, director of nuclear plant safety at the UCS, which monitors the intersection of policy and science, said he was worried plant operators could request that inspections of their plants be delayed during these refueling periods.
In part, he said, “other concerns are potential requests from reactor owners to postpone certain inspections that take place during refueling outages until the next cycle, which could result in delays of more than 18-24 months in some of these critical activities. The concern is some of these inspections require personnel to be in tight quarters or might require specialized contractors from off-site.”
The agency also said in a March 27 announcement that it was evaluating scheduled inspections of nuclear sites, including reactors being decommissioned and facilities where spent fuel is stored.
NRC did not respond to questions about which facilities would be affected.
Nuclear power plants typically refuel in the spring and fall, when electricity demand dips.
The NRC said March 27 it was requiring “resident inspectors” — agency officials assigned in pairs or more full-time to a nuclear power station — to work remotely, adding that other inspectors are available from regional offices or NRC headquarters.
“The temporary changes announced by the NRC regarding resident inspectors will not impact the safe operation of the nation’s nuclear fleet,” Doug True, chief nuclear officer at the Nuclear Energy Institute, said in a statement. “Resident inspectors live close by in the local communities and remain in ready status, allowing them to promptly report to the site should a need arise.”
Maria Korsnick, president and chief executive officer of NEI, an industry trade group based in Washington, told Energy Secretary Dan Brouillette in a letter dated March 20 nuclear plant staff are implementing pandemic-specific procedures in response to COVID-19, the disease the virus causes, depending on their locations.
But the industry is running low on protective medical supplies — gloves, wipes, masks and thermometers, Korsnick said — and the scheduled refueling operations could present a problem during a pandemic when authorities have locked down cities and states from non-essential activities.
Nuclear reactors need fresh fuel every 18 or 24 months, and to complete these refueling changeovers requires hundreds of specialized technicians to enter each plant and work for a month or two before leaving. “These workers typically stay in hotels or board with local families, and eat in restaurants,” she said.
The American nuclear fleet has 57 plants with 96 reactors and generates about 20% of the country’s electricity.
Thirty-two stations in 21 states are slated for refueling this spring, according to Korsnick, who called for the industry to receive, among other assistance, “priority” for personal protective equipment, COVID-19 test kits and “unfettered access” for personnel to cross state lines to reach nuclear plants.
Nuclear plants are required to maintain a certain number of staffers in their control room, as well as at least 10 armed guards to protect against attacks. They also fall under regulations that bar staff from working too much in a brief period of time, typically no more than 16 hours in a day, 26 hours in two days and 72 hours in a 7-day stretch.
In a separate letter sent March 28, Ho K. Nieh, director of nuclear reactor regulation at NRC, said the agency is open to relaxing these time constraints during the outbreak, as long as companies have a different plan to manage their employees’ rest.
“The NRC will consider these requests on a case-by-case basis and, if the requirements for an exemption are met, will provide written approval of an exemption for a period of 60 days,” Nieh said.
“It’s not clear what those alternative controls would look like,” Lyman said, alluding to different rest plans. “If even with these exemptions a reactor cannot maintain the necessary staffing, it would have to apply for additional exemptions and possibly shut down.”
Lawmakers have urged utility companies to delay any shutoffs of service for customers during the crisis, and Sens. John Barrasso, R-Wy., Thomas R. Carper, D-Del., and Rep. Greg Walden, R-Ore., pressed the NRC to refrain from collecting fees from nuclear power companies for “at least” 90 days due to the virus.
The agency draws in fees from companies that license reactors, mine uranium, make fuel for reactors and hospitals that run nuclear fuel-powered machines.
“During the ongoing national emergency to respond to the COVID-19 outbreak, critical industries, including electric power, are experiencing economic challenges,” they wrote in a March 30 letter to Kristine Svinicki, NRC chairwoman. “Many power companies have suspended electricity disconnects for nonpayment as hard-working Americans face unprecedented employment hardships.”
The commission is expected to charge about $4.7 million annually for each running reactor, according to the lawmakers. “This funding is ultimately paid by American ratepayers, who are struggling to make ends meet during the current crisis,” they said.