By - Jim Vess

NRC to grant waivers for work-hour limits at nuclear units to meet pandemic staffing needs

Energize Weekly, April 8, 2020

Faced with the risk of not being able to meet the rigorous staffing requirement for operating nuclear power plants during the ongoing pandemic, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) said it is prepared to grant exemptions from work-hour controls.

The NRC in a March 28 letter to the industry trade group, the Nuclear Energy Institute (NEI), laid out the ground rules for an exemption and said they would be granted on a case-by-case basis.

The NRC is also developing a memorandum giving guidance on which inspections or other tasks can be deferred and has reduced agency inspections for now.

The staffing levels and allowable work hours are a rigorous safety standard set in regulation, but there is a growing concern that some plants may have trouble getting adequate numbers of workers on site for shifts.

Some operators, such as Exelon, are checking the temperatures of every worker at the beginning to each shift.

The objective of the exemptions, the NRC said, is “to ensure that the control of work hours and management of worker fatigue to not unduly limit licensee flexibility in using personnel resources to most effectively manage the impacts of COVID-19,” the disease sweeping through the country.

The NRC warned, however, that it will require plants to shut down “if they cannot appropriately staff their facilities.”

In applying for an exemption, a nuclear power plant operator must provide a statement showing alternative controls for managing fatigue and that those measure include:

  • Not more than 16 work hours in a 24-hour period and not more than 86 hours in a seven-day period
  • A minimum 10-hour break between work periods
  • A limit on 12-hour shifts to no more than 14 consecutive days
  • A minimum of six days off during any 30-day period

The operator seeking an exemption must also set up a procedure to monitor worker behavior during shifts.

Thirty-two nuclear power stations in 21 states were planning to undergo refueling outages this spring, according to the NEI. Plants usually shut for refueling and maintenance in the spring and fall when demand for electricity is lowest. Refueling usually takes three to four weeks.

A refueling outage requires hundreds of extra workers onsite. Workers who usually stay in local motels and eat in local restaurants.

For example, Exelon removed its Byron Generating Station Unit 1 from the grid on March 9 for maintenance and refueling, with an estimated 1,200 contract workers onsite, along with 800 plant employees.

At Exelon’s Limerick Power Generating Station in Pottstown, Pa., a refueling operation now underway at Unit 1 has drawn calls for a delay by local officials. There are about 1,400 workers involved in the refueling.

“While I recognize the nuclear plant as a vital part of our infrastructure, we must ensure that proper measures are taken to keep both the workers and our community safe – and limit the spread of COVID-19 as much as possible,” U.S. Rep. Madeleine Dean, a Democrat representing Pottstown, said in a statement.

As for calls to delay the refueling, Dave Marcheskie, the Limerick station’s communications manager, said in a video response to questions, “We do not have that luxury.”

“Limerick’s clean and reliable power is vital to the region’s hospitals, health care facilities, emergency response centers and essential businesses as they all respond to this COVID-19 pandemic,” Marcheskie said.

On April 3, one of the workers at the plant tested positive for the COVID-19 virus, according to The Philadelphia Inquirer.

Other nuclear operators have delayed or modified refueling plans. For example, the Tennessee Valley Authority pushed back refueling at two units slated for March to April and May.

Arizona Public Service scaled back refueling and maintenance at its Palo Verde Generating Station Unit 2 to work that is absolutely necessary.

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