In an effort to curb the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic, governments around the world have instituted stay-at-home orders and quarantine guidelines, but these directions are not necessarily applicable to every sector of the economy, such as food, agriculture, healthcare, medicine, and energy. Critical infrastructures in the energy industry including nuclear power plants need to continue operating even during a pandemic. Incidentally, the current pandemic has had a definite impact on the nuclear power industry.
Nuclear power accounts for 10.5% of the world’s total power supply and is used in more than 30 countries. One of the distinguishing features of nuclear power plants is that they do not require frequent refueling, unlike conventional power plants. Nuclear fuel rods are generally replaced every three years, while the average nuclear plant is refueled every 12-18 months, significantly less frequent than power plants using thermal energy, such as coal or natural gas. Furthermore, as a type of base load power plant, nuclear plants generate electricity at a constant level for 24 hours a day, making them a much more stable source of electricity compared to renewable energy power plants.
Callum Thomas, founder and managing shareholder of research firm Topdown Charts, believes that all nuclear plants, whether they are currently in operation, in construction, or being retired, have already prepared their respective crisis response plans in order to ensure intended operations. Aside from essential personnel required for operation and construction, all other nuclear workers have been issued work-from-home orders, in much the same way as workers in other industries. Nonessential projects and procedures have also been delayed or put on hold in order to reduce social contact as much as possible.
However, nuclear plant operators that need to perform maintenance and refueling must manage on-premise personnel scheduling while ensuring maintenance and refueling operations are completed on time. With regards to the ever-expanding pandemic, U.S.-based Nuclear Regulatory Commission recently declared that nuclear plants are permitted to extend their employees’ work hours or delay certain maintenance operations. Workers are now allowed to work a maximum of 86 hours per week, up from the original 72 hours, for upwards of 12-14 consecutive days.
According to Tom Basso, Senior Director Regulatory Affairs at the Nuclear Energy Institute, a viable way for nuclear plants to massively reduce essential personnel at the plants – and in turn lower the risk of infection – is to shrink their daily five- to six-person shifts down to two people, with each working day and night shifts respectively.
“As of 18 April, the NRC had granted exemptions, which are valid for 60 days, in response to requests from Arizona Public Service Company for Palo Verde, Energy Harbor Nuclear Corp for Beaver Valley, Exelon Generation Company for Braidwood, Ginna, Limerick and Quad Cities, and Next Era Energy for Seabrook,” states World Nuclear News. The 60-day exemption was intended for nuclear plants to make needed personnel adjustments.
Despite the longer shifts’ purported effect of lowering infection rates, the risk of overworked employees has cast doubt over the longer shifts’ ability to ensure worker safety. Nuclear engineer Arnie Gundersen cautions against the adoption of longer shifts as an anti-pandemic mechanism. No stranger to the dangers of overworked employees, Gundersen personally witnessed an instance in which an exhausted technician fell into the pool used for cooling fuel rods. The Three Mile Island nuclear accident in 1979 is another similar tragedy in the U.S. stemming from employee fatigue.
To make matters worse, the nuclear industry is currently facing the problem of an aging work force, compounded by the lack of new blood. Reports indicate that a minimum of five technicians must be available at all times in a nuclear reactor control room. In reality, though, space is at a premium in these control rooms, not to mention the fact that hotspots requiring repairs are few and far between, so people are more often than not clumped together with no feasible way of maintaining the so-called “safe social distance”.
As previously mentioned, nuclear plants require routine maintenance and refueling. A crew of about 1,000 to 1,500 technicians perform these actions by collectively traveling to 58 nuclear plants in 29 states for a total of one to two months. In 2020, a total of 54 nuclear plants need to be maintained and refueled, while the crew in question has yet to be tested for coronavirus.
Exelon, which operates the Limerick Generating Station, announced on April 13 that the station had completed refueling its Unit 1 reactor within 16 days, which was two weeks faster than other nuclear plants and set a historical record in refueling time. Even so, however, two technicians at Limerick tested positive for COVID-19. Exelon said it will continue to engage in anti-pandemic measures in accordance with official guidelines.
Taiwan’s Maanshan Nuclear Power Plant recently underwent a 50-day maintenance operation from April 7 to May 26, with about 2000 technicians working on the project. The plant took an exhaustive number of measures against the pandemic, such as requiring that its technicians provide medical and travel records, measuring forehead temperatures daily, barring site entry from technicians with fevers, increasing disinfection frequency, making surgical masks mandatory on premise, and enforcing social distancing guidelines. What’s more, for the first time ever, Maanshan’s on-premise maintenance involved no overseas technicians, who provided remote support via video calls instead.