Credit to Author: Darrell Proctor| Date: Mon, 23 Mar 2020 22:58:42 +0000
The agency that regulates nuclear power in the U.S. is preparing to allow reactor operators to work longer shifts, and could also issue new rules that would let facilities put off some maintenance and plant inspections. The actions are in response to the coronavirus pandemic.
Comments during a Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) conference call on March 20 suggest that regulators expect nuclear plant operators could ask for hardship clauses to be invoked, to provide justification for allowing operational practices that divert from existing regulations. Bloomberg on March 23 reported that the agency could issue new guidelines for nuclear plant operation as soon as March 27.
Rob Taylor, a deputy director at the NRC’s office of nuclear reactor regulation, during the March 20 call said, “The hardship would specifically seem to apply to those inspections that require personnel and-or equipment to be brought on site that could inadvertently spread the COVID virus to plant personnel.” The agency is providing regular coronavirus updates on its website.
The NRC earlier this month said a “small number” of the agency’s workers were in self-imposed isolation after attending an event where other participants later tested positive for the virus, according to POWER’s sister publication, Exchange Monitor. The NRC earlier this month canceled its 32nd annual Regulatory Information Conference, scheduled for March 10-12 in North Bethesda, Maryland, due to the coronavirus outbreak.
No Hardship Requests Yet
The NRC has not to date received any requests to invoke a hardship clause, but Bloomberg reported that the changes are being considered due to the possibility that COVID-19 could infect nuclear plant employees, and subsequently impact maintenance plans.
Stephen Tait, a spokesperson for Michigan-based DTE Energy, told Bloomberg the utility will consider revising the “scope and duration” of a service outage at the Fermi 2 nuclear plant in Michigan “based on the impact of the pandemic.” The Fermi 2 reactor was powered down on March 21 for a planned refueling. That job usually last for several weeks, and involves hundreds of workers. Refueling involves replacement of nuclear-fuel rods, and means workers must conduct inspections and make needed repairs.
Environmental groups immediately expressed concern about changes to NRC rules. Kevin Kamps of Beyond Nuclear, a Maryland-based nuclear watchdog organization, told Bloomberg: “Regulations to ensure safety should be strengthened at a time like this— not weakened. It means operating nuclear plants without basic safety inspections.”
Here is more of POWER’s coverage of the coronavirus’ impacts on the power generation industry:
—Darrell Proctor is associate editor for POWER (@DarrellProctor1, @POWERmagazine).