Exelon Corp., operator of the biggest U.S. nuclear fleet, says the move allows for “healthy workers to remain on site for more hours, reducing the need to bring in outside travelers and vendors.”
The Nuclear Regulatory Commission is already allowing six U.S. power plants to extend workers’ shifts, to as long as 12 hours a day for two weeks, and more may be coming. That’s up significantly from current standards that require people to get two-to-three days off a week when pulling shifts that long. Employees can also work as many as 86 hours in a week now, up from 72 hours.
The new rules come as at least 42 construction workers have tested positive for the coronavirus at a nuclear plant in Georgia where Southern Co. is building two new reactors. Last week, the utility and its partners announced they would reduce the 9,000-person workforce by 20 percent to slow the spread of the virus. The government considers nuclear power plants to be essential, and reactors will supply almost 21 percent of the country’s electricity this year.
Exelon Corp., operator of the biggest U.S. nuclear fleet, says it “can no longer meet the work-hour controls” at four of its reactors, including the Braidwood plant in Illinois. NextEra Energy Inc. said the same thing about its Seabrook power plant in New Hampshire. The companies say that the extended work hours won’t have an adverse impact on safety.
“The work-hour rule exemption is an important contingency that may be implemented to allow healthy workers to remain on site for more hours, reducing the need to bring in outside travelers and vendors,” Exelon spokeswoman Linsey Wisniewski said by email.
But watchdog groups are concerned that employees may be overworked, leading to fatigue and potentially errors. “You want an alert workforce,” said Paul Gunter, a director at Beyond Nuclear. “You don’t do this with bus drivers, but they’re saying it’s OK for nuclear power plant workers.”
The NRC is also granting utilities utilities permission to defer some inspections as dozens of reactors go through the annual spring refueling cycle. These projects can involve more than 1,000 people converging on a power plant for a month or more of maintenance and testing.
The NRC is on board with the new reality of operating nuclear plants during a global pandemic and is developing guidance for deferring maintenance work. “There are some ancillary activities during an outage that can be deferred,” said Scott Burnell, a spokesman for the agency.
Entergy Corp. is planning to defer some leak tests at pipes at its Grand Gulf reactor in Mississippi. The tests typically are due every 11 1/2 years, but will now be rescheduled for the next refueling outage in 18 months. Pushing that period out to 13 years won’t affect safety, the company said by email. And at the Indian Point facility north of New York City, Entergy is also seeking permission to postpone annual physical evaluations for firefighters.
Nuclear watchdogs are paying close attention to four sites that have requested permission to delay tests on steam generator piping, including Exelon’s Braidwood. The agency already approved NextEra’s request for its Turkey Point plant in Florida.
The pipes carry water at high pressure, allowing it to stay liquid even as temperatures reach 600 degrees Fahrenheit (316 degrees Celsius). They are supposed to be inspected every three years, with the job requiring people working in close proximity. Because of the virus, the operators are seeking to delay this until the next refueling cycle in 18 months.
These components have a fraught history.