WASHINGTON, D.C. — U.S. nuclear plants will be allowed to keep workers on longer shifts to deal with staffing problems in the coronavirus pandemic, raising worries among watchdogs and some families living near reactors that employee exhaustion will increase the risks of accidents.
The Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s decision to temporarily allow longer worker shifts is one way the industry is scrambling to keep up mandatory staffing levels through what will be weeks or months more of the outbreak.
The shift extensions would allow workers to be on the job for up to 86 hours a week. Currently, they’re generally allowed to work up to 72 hours in a seven-day period. As part of the waiver, workers could be assigned to 12-hour shifts for as many as 14 days in a row.
Nuclear plant workers already are having their temperatures checked on arrival for each shift, and employers are studying options including having workers temporarily live at plants full-time.
Ho Nieh, the NRC’s director of reactor regulation, discussed the provision for longer work hours with utility industry executives and others on Thursday. Nieh said federal inspectors on and off site would monitor so that no plant works its employees to the point of bleariness. Regulators would approve, and if needed revoke, expanded shifts on a plant-by-plant basis, Nieh said.
But for Natalie Hildt Treat, a resident of Salisbury, Massaschusetts who is staying at home during the outbreak with her 5-year-old child and husband, the thought that workers at plants such as Seabrook Station, 6 miles away, could soon be grinding through repeated long shifts only added to her concerns.
“This is highly specialized work that needs a lot of attention and focus,” Treat, a nuclear safety activist, said by telephone. It’s a problem, she said, “if people are fatigued or sick.”