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Nuclear Power Industry Must Not Use Covid-19 Pandemic to Neglect Safety

Reactor refueling should halt during outbreak while safety measures are maintained


The nuclear power industry should not be allowed to significantly increase nuclear safety risks while jeopardizing the health and wellbeing of power plant workers and entire communities within emergency planning zones already sheltering in place under a viral threat, says a safety expert at Beyond Nuclear, a national anti-nuclear watchdog organization.

As the incidences of the novel coronavirus (Covid-19) among nuclear power plant workers spread across the U.S. nuclear power fleet, the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) is poised to relax nuclear power plant safety inspections and maintenance required by reactor operating licenses.

The NRC will also allow nuclear utilities to require their control room operators, onsite security forces, fire brigades and other critical site personnel to work substantially longer fatiguing shifts.

The deferral of the safety-related tasks and relaxation of work hour controls are needed, they say, to comply with "social distancing" recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and to respond to the anticipated attrition of a workforce stricken by the highly contagious and debilitating pandemic.

Yet at the same time, the industry and the NRC are crowding nuclear power plants with as many as 1,600 workers, brought in from across the country, to conduct reactor refueling operations. Fourteen reactors are presently shut down, primarily for refueling, and more reactors are scheduled to halt for refueling through the end of May.

"The nuclear industry and its regulator, the NRC, are maximizing the industry's power production by pressing onward with scheduled reactor refueling outages," said Paul Gunter, Director of Reactor Oversight at Beyond Nuclear.

"Yet at the same time, they are using CDC Covid-19 guidelines to defer scheduled and required inspections and maintenance of critical safety components until the next refueling cycle eighteen months away," he said.

"The regulator and the industry know full well that they are rolling in a Covid-19 Trojan Horse with these refueling crews travelling from one reactor site and community to the next," said Gunter.

Workers at plants that are refueling, such as Limerick in Pennsylvania, have publicly expressed alarm at the overcrowded conditions, describing workers sitting "elbow to elbow" in canteens and computer labs, and saying they are "terrified" that this will lead to widespread infections of the novel coronavirus.

Despite this, the industry is also requesting that the NRC defer inspections and delay maintenance required under reactor operating licenses of critical safety components and systems, including steam generators and reactor emergency core cooling systems, until the next refueling cycle eighteen months away. It says this is in order to observe the CDC guidelines for slowing the growth of the pandemic, while maintaining a minimum onsite workforce still fit for duty at operating reactors.

In anticipation of more and more workers falling ill to the debilitating virus, the NRC and industry are collaborating to relax "fitness for duty" licensing requirements meant to prevent the over-fatigue of operators and other critical plant workers including security.

"Nuclear plant operators on extended 12-hour shifts, who can now be assigned to work two consecutive 84-hour weeks, will suffer excessive fatigue," Gunter said. "This not only compromises their immune systems, but makes catastrophic mistakes more likely." The infamous nuclear accident at the Three Mile Island Unit 2 nuclear power station near Harrisburg, PA in the early morning hours of March 28, 1979, was attributed to mechanical failure worsened by operator fatigue and error.

In response to the public health emergency brought on by Covid-19, which mandates social distancing, the operators at Braidwood 2 in Illinois, Comanche Peak 2 in Texas, and Turkey Point 3 in Florida have all requested an 18-month delay on inspections and maintenance of the thousands of steam generator tubes that are required to be examined during the current refueling outage in April and May 2020.

Steam generators are critical to both power operations and reactor safety, as the tubes represent 50% of the reactor pressure boundary and recirculate vital cooling water through the reactor core. The reactors' harsh operational environment places extreme stresses on the heat transfer component, causing tube degradation from vibration, heat, radiation, corrosion and cracking that must be guarded against through routine inspection and maintenance.

The price for ignoring the condition of steam generator tubes can be high, as was demonstrated in February 2000 when a similarly deferred inspection was attributed to a steam generator tube rupture at the Indian Point Unit 2 nuclear reactor just 30 miles from New York City. The single steam tube rupture released radioactivity into the environment and could have been severe had the high pressure rupture caused a cascading guillotine effect on neighboring tubes and a loss of coolant accident.

"It is a reckless contradiction that the nuclear industry is using social distancing restrictions to defer inspections of steam generator tubes while threatening the spread of the virus through thousands of workers moving around the country to refuel reactors," Gunter said. "Once again, the nuclear industry and a captured regulator are putting financial interests ahead of the wellbeing and safety of workers and the surrounding communities," he said.

"The NRC should suspend these refueling outages and delay the restart of reactors currently down for refueling until a Disaster Initiated Review of the pandemic's impact on emergency preparedness can be completed, something that the Federal Emergency Management Agency should already be doing with the NRC," Gunter added.

"It is not hard to imagine the level of chaos that would ensue should a nuclear accident occur during the current coronavirus crisis," Gunter continued. "Emergency preparedness plans are already inadequate, but the prospect of a mandatory mass evacuation at a time like this is an impossible choice," he said. "It is the duty of the NRC and FEMA to ensure workable emergency preparedness plans and procedures are in place before restarting any of the reactors currently refueling," Gunter concluded.

Beyond Nuclear also recommends strategically powering down some reactors in areas where there is reduced demand induced by the pandemic and pre-pandemic excess regional generating capacity. The workforces at shuttered reactors could then supplement those over-stretched at reactors still operating.

Beyond Nuclear aims to educate and activate the public about the connections between nuclear power and nuclear weapons and the need to abandon both to safeguard our future. Beyond Nuclear advocates for an energy future that is sustainable, benign and democratic.

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