The COVID Pandemic has thrown America’s atomic reactor industry into lethal chaos, making a major disaster even more likely. Reports from “terrified” workers at a Pennsylvania reactor indicate vital precautions needed to protect them may not even be possible.
Nationwide, with falling demand and soaring prices for nuke-generated electricity, the pandemic casts a dark shadow over reactor operations and whether frightened neighbors will allow them to be refueled and repaired.
America’s 96 remaining atomic reactors are run by a coveted pool of skilled technicians who manage the control rooms, conduct repairs, load/unload nuclear fuel.
Because few young students have been entering the field, the corps of about 100,000 licensed technicians has been—like the reactors themselves—rapidly aging while declining in numbers. Work has stopped at the last two US reactors under construction (at Vogtle, Georgia) due to the pandemic’s impact, which includes a shrinking supply of healthy workers.
Every reactor control room requires five operators at all times. But the physical space is limited there and in plant hot spots that need frequent, often demanding repairs. Social distancing is virtually impossible. Long shifts in confined spaces undermine operator safety and performance.
Of critical importance: every 18-24 months each reactor must shut for refueling and repairs. Itinerant crews of 1000 to 1500 technicians travel to 58 sites in 29 states, usually staying 30-60 days. They often board with local families, or in RVs, hotels, or Air B&Bs.
Some 54 reactors have been scheduled for refuel/repairs in 2020. But there is no official, organized program to test the workers for the Coronavirus as they move around the country.
As the pandemic thins the workforce, older operators are being called out of retirement. The Trump-run Nuclear Regulatory Commission recently certified 16-hour work days, 86-hour work weeks, and up to 14 consecutive days with 12-hour shifts.
Long-time nuclear engineer Arnie Gundersen warns of fatigued operators falling asleep on the job. He recalls at least one exhausted worker falling into the highly radioactive pool surrounding the high-level fuel rods. Operator fatigue also helped cause the 1979 melt-down that destroyed Pennsylvania’s Three Mile Island Unit Two.
The industry is now using the coronavirus pandemic to rush through a wide range of deregulation demands. Among them is a move to allow radioactive waste to be dumped into municipal landfills.
The NRC may also certify skipping vital repairs, escalating the likelihood of major breakdowns and melt-downs. Nearly all US reactors were designed and built in the pre-digital age, more than 30 years ago. Most are in advanced decay. Atomic expert David Lochbaum, formerly with the NRC, warns that failure risks from longer work hours and deferred repairs could be extremely significant, and could vary from reactor to reactor depending on their age and condition.
The industry has also been required to maintain credible public health response plans should those reactors blow. But pandemic-stricken U.S. hospitals now have zero spare capacity, multiplying the possible human fallout from an increasingly likely disaster.
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Industry-wide the pandemic has brought working conditions to the brink of collapse. At Pennsylvania’s Limerick Generating Station, workers say they are “terrified” that the plant has become a “breeding ground…a complete cesspool” for the coronavirus. “I’m in a constant state of paranoia,” one technician told Carl Hessler, Jr., of MontcoCourtNews.
Others say social distancing is non-existent, with “no less than 100 people in the training room” and “people literally sitting on top of each other…sitting at every computer elbow to elbow.” Shift change rooms, Hessler was told, can be “standing room only.” At least two Limerick workers are confirmed to have carried the virus. COVID rates in the county are soaring.
Gundersen, a nuclear engineer, warns that limited control room floorspace and cramped conditions for maintenance can make social distancing impossible. “Some component repairs can involve five workers working right next to each other,” he says.
Because reactor-driven electricity is not vital amidst this pandemic downturn, the demand for atomic workers to “stay home” is certain to escalate. “I am concerned with Exelon & Limerick Nuclear Generating Station’s handling of the scheduled refueling—which has required bringing in workers from across the country during this pandemic,” says US Rep. Madeleine Dean in a statement likely to be repeated at reactor sites around the country.
“The potential increase of COVID-19 cases from 1,400 new workers not observing social distancing is staggering,” says epidemiologist Joseph Mangano of the Radiation and Health Project. “The Limerick plant should be shut until the COVID-19 pandemic is over.”
Indian Point Unit One, north of New York City, will shut permanently on April 28. Iowa’s Duane Arnold will close in December.
But Ground Zero may be Pacific Gas & Electric’s two 35-year-old reactors at Diablo Canyon. PG&E is bankrupt for the second time in two decades, and recently pleaded guilty to 85 felonies from the fires its faulty wires sent raging through northern California, killing 84 people. In 2010 a faulty PG&E gas line exploded in San Bruno, killing eight people.
Surrounded by earthquake faults, Diablo’s construction prompted more than 10,000 civil disobedience arrests, the most at any US reactor. PG&E now admits its two Diablo nukes will lose more than $1.2 billion this year, more than $3.4 million per day.
Amidst its bitterly contested bankruptcy, PG&E may be taken over by the state. But more than a thousand workers are slated in early October to refuel and repair Unit One, which the NRC says is dangerously embrittled.
Whether local residents concerned about both a nuclear accident and the spread of the coronavirus will let them into the county remains to be seen. So is whether they'll be still operating by then.
With the future of the nuclear industry at stake—along with the possibility of more reactor mishaps—the whole world will be watching.