The nuclear sector has sprung into action to screen employees for signs of the novel coronavirus and prepare for potential disruptions to their typical refueling practices in light of pandemic-related travel restrictions. 

Nuclear generators have been enacting pandemic protocols for weeks to continue protecting their workforce. 

“We were prepared in advance for a range of challenges and some of those preparations are well-suited to this pandemic,” Matt Wald, Nuclear Energy Institute (NEI) spokesperson, told Utility Dive.

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The Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) is considering changes to rules and requirements to help generators protect their workforce from the highly contagious respiratory virus. Meanwhile, the industry is trying to address a shortage of supplies needed to protect its essential employees.

The nuclear industry “planned for this. I was not surprised to hear that they were at least three or four steps ahead of the federal government.”

Jacopo Buongiorno
Director, MIT Center for Advanced Nuclear Energy Systems

Like most of the country, the nuclear energy industry is facing a shortage of personal protective equipment, like plastic gloves, single-use sanitized wipes, dust masks and disposable thermometers.

Several sites must also plan for an influx of 100 or more workers for the cyclical nuclear refueling process scheduled during the spring and fall when demand is lower. As travel is restricted or discouraged and more “non-essential” businesses close down or restrict their hours, utilities are considering the potential limitations of proceeding with refueling outages.

The nuclear industry “planned for this. I was not surprised to hear that they were at least three or four steps ahead of the federal government” in responding to the novel coronavirus, Professor Jacopo Buongiorno, director of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Center for Advanced Nuclear Energy Systems, told Utility Dive.

“All the nuclear power plant operators are ready to potentially sequester a number of operators for weeks at the site … so that there is that continuity of operations,” Buongiorno said.

Securing the Workforce

Nuclear generators have identified some tasks that can be done remotely or postponed, but some employees must still come to nuclear power plants on a daily basis due to the technology air gap, a cybersecurity measure required in operations by the NRC.

“It’s physically not possible for someone outside the site to control or make any changes, cause any action to the equipment,” Buongiorno said.

In their responses to the novel coronavirus, several nuclear operators emphasized the importance of protecting their employees, but the NRC mandates a specific amount of staff needed during operations, Wald said.

“The coronavirus is being managed on a state- or county-basis,” he added.

For regular operations, plants need NRC-licensed operators in the control room, and nuclear operators in the field, who may be unlicensed, to execute directions from the control room. Buongiorno said other workers with maintenance or engineering expertise may also be required, although they will not carry out control room operations.

The energy industry has broadly bemoaned shortages in a specialized workforce due to COVID-19 precautions and the same applies to nuclear workers.

NRC licenses cannot be acquired by employees in a short time, which makes the limited amount of nuclear operators potentially challenging, Buongiorno said.

“It’s not something you can do in a couple of weeks,” he said.

NEI sent guidance to its members to locate people who have let their NRC licenses lapse, from career changes or recent retirements, and get those licenses requalified. This effort is similar to other essential businesses, such as the healthcare sector, Wald said.

“You probably delay some training a little bit,” he said, adding that operators must also cancel their vacations and adjust their schedules.

Some plants have considered keeping operators on base to prevent contagion. Based on pandemic plans established a decade ago, nuclear plants have cots, blankets, chemical toilets and enough personal care items to sustain the operating crews at a plant should such measures be necessary.

“The main idea of these precautions was what happens if the roads are impassable, not what happens if some new virus forces everybody indoors,” Wald said.

According to NEI, utilities are taking a lot of precautions to ensure employees aren’t coming in sick, per their advisory.

“We are testing every employee every day when they come in,” Rita Sipe, Duke spokesperson, told Utility Dive.

The tests include asking them a series of questions and taking their temperature, she said. Duke is also discouraging employee carpooling. The Duke unit operators have also enforced more cleaning between and during work shifts and placed some workers on an “on-call basis.”

Refueling the nuclear fleet

Refueling processes can increase a plant’s workforce by a factor of two or three, bringing in a lot of people that are not local, according to Buongiorno.

NEI wrote to Energy Secretary Dan Brouillette on March 19 for support regarding refueling operations. Operators need to guarantee accommodations and domestic travel for workers, as well as a few instances of international workers.

According to NEI, 32 nuclear units in the U.S. will be refueled this spring.

56 nuclear units are expected for refueling in 2020

U.S. nuclear units scheduled for refueling, color-coded by months. Gray is February; red, orange and yellow are March, April and May, respectively; and green, blue and purple are August, September and October, respectively. Data courtesy of NEI.

The specialized craftworkers that are part of the refueling outages should be deemed essential, NEI requested. Pipe fitters, electricians and other specialized laborers routinely travel around the United States, either as contractors or independent workers, to carry out intensive shifts at individual power plants, before moving on again, Wald said.

Refueling work can last two to three weeks, according to Buongiorno. That time has decreased due to better planning, but refueling outages are scheduled ahead for many years in advance, Wald said.

For instance, plants stagger refueling outages between different units to prevent multiple outages in one service territory. Dominion’s Millstone plant will have units undergo refueling in April and October. PSEG’s Salem plant has refueling outages planned for March, April and October of this year.

Several planned outages were already underway by the time the spread of the novel coronavirus became a greater concern in the U.S. 

Browns Ferry nuclear plant, operated by Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) had its refueling take place as scheduled and is wrapping up. The three units of the boiling water reactor require refueling every 24 months, according to TVA spokesperson Malinda Hunter.

Plants with pressurized water reactors require refueling every 18 months, Wald said.

Duke has two plants in refueling right now and resources were already in place to house the workers coming to the site, Sipe said. The craft workers specializing in refueling outages receive the same daily screening as other employees to enter the premises, she said.

“Scheduled maintenance or refueling is all being looked at very carefully,” Sipe said.

Exelon has “medical professionals staffing our outage facilities around-the-clock to closely monitor employee health,” spokesperson Linsey Wisniewski said. For its spring refueling outages, Exelon is self-screening employees and contractors for signs of fever or respiratory issues, she added.

COVID-19 complicates refueling schedule

Many plants are trying to continue operations under their pandemic plans while adhering to the schedules for refueling outages, but many refuelings are scheduled as self-isolation practices are expected to tighten.

TVA or its nuclear sites have had no reported cases of COVID-19 so far, according to their spokesperson, but the company decided to delay the scheduled refuelings for units at two Tennessee plants this spring by two weeks.

These adjustments allow TVA to “mitigate potential risks to our employees, contractors or the general public and support nationwide recommendations due to the coronavirus pandemic,” Hunter told Utility Dive via email.

Sequoyah’s outage start date moved from March 28 to April 11 and Watts Bar’s outage start date moved from April 24 to May 8, she said.

“TVA checked with vendors to ensure a two-week delay to start would still allow needed resources to be available,” she said.

Delays are unusual with the preplanned outages, but the plants can continue to burn the fuel they have “for a couple more months” and will ramp down in power to prepare for the coming outage, Hunter said.

“Outages are not typically shifted simply due to the issues that could arise from scheduled resources, vendor support,” and other factors, she said.

Fuel is delivered weeks or months in advance, and fabricated early on based on the refueling schedule, Wald said, but the nuclear supply chain, including the refueling workers, need to receive support and be recognized as essential workers.

Other utilities have also announced changes to the refueling procedures.

Arizona Public Service revised the scope for its Palo Verde routine refueling and maintenance outage to limit activity to refueling work that is “absolutely required” to reliably operate the plant for the summers of 2020 and 2021 to meet peak demand.

“Work requiring the employment of a significant number of temporary contractors has been removed from the outage scope, and deferring that work will not compromise reliability,” APS told state regulators in a letter on Friday.

Similar changes to planned refuelings can happen at other plants, according to NEI.

“Should workforce limitations impact a plant in a refueling outage, the scope of activities may be adjusted based on the specific conditions of the plant,” Wald said.

DTE Energy, in Michigan, has so far disclosed three cases of its employees testing positive for COVID-19, although the company does not disclose their specific roles.

At the same time, DTE started the refueling and maintenance outage at its Fermi nuclear plant in Michigan on Saturday morning. “In terms of outage impact at Fermi, it may impact the duration of the outage as we continue to assess the impacts of the coronavirus,” Stephen Tait, Fermi spokesperson told Utility Dive in an email.

TVA, Duke and others said the traveling workforce is being screened for the novel coronavirus before entering nuclear sites.

Duke is “certainly looking at” the timing for other refueling scheduled this spring, but has not reached a point to defer or change aspects of the planned outage, Sipe said.

Nuclear construction

Various states have included construction work in the categories of essential work when issuing directives to keep people at home. 

With pandemic plans in place, Southern Company construction is continuing on the Vogtle units in Georgia. Vogtle construction has not encountered major changes from the novel coronavirus, CEO Tom Fanning told Bloomberg.

Southern announced a non-manual worker for the construction of Vogtle units 3 and 4 was being tested for coronavirus two weeks ago.

“I completely understand that [Southern] wants to finish as soon as possible,” Buongiorno said, given the delays and cost overruns of the construction.

However, Southern California Edison curtailed some of the deconstruction work at its San Onofre nuclear plant temporarily, due to the COVID-19 outbreak, although the transfer of spent nuclear fuel from wet to dry storage will continue, among other tasks.

The utility is evaluating which deconstruction activities can be pared down.

“This is an ever-changing situation, at the national, state and local levels, and we are staying flexible in our level of response,” Doug Bauder, SCE VP and chief nuclear officer, said in a statement.