Relaxed work standards at U.S. nuclear power plants due to the coronavirus pandemic has provoked concern among some environmental groups, while plant owners say that maintaining the safety of personnel is the focus of the changes, a Bloomberg News report says.
The Nuclear Regulatory Commission has made two key provisions due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Six U.S. plants have been granted permission to keep workers at their jobs for 12-hour shifts for up to two weeks, a dramatic shift from regulations during normal, non-pandemic times. Before the pandemic, nuclear power plant personnel were limited to 72 hours of work per week. With long shifts, plant staff were required to have two to three days off per week. The relaxed standards also allow up to 86 hours of work per week.
In addition, plant owners have complained that preparations for inspections force workers to work side by side in ways that would compromise efforts to slow the spread of the disease through social distancing. As such, the NRC has allowed some plants to postpone inspections.
The virus has already made itself known in the nuclear power industry, as 42 workers at the Plant Vogtle expansion project in Waynesboro, Georgia, have tested positive with the coronavirus. Southern Company has announced it would scale back personnel on the site 20 percent to allow for more success social distancing at the worksite, where 9,000 construction workers are currently employed.
Delayed inspections have alarmed some nuclear industry watchdog groups because they are associated with refueling outages. As such, postponing an inspection will push some regulatory activities back as much as 18 months. The largest U.S. nuclear plant, the Palo Verde plant in Arizona, owned by Pinnacle West Capital Corp. has postponed a spring 2020 inspection to late 2021, as plant operators have determined that the inspection can be postponed until the next refueling outage.
Watchdog groups are calling the compromises a serious gamble, hoping the coronavirus crisis doesn’t turn into a nuclear plant catastrophe. They are concerned delayed inspections and fatigued workers could be a recipe for a disaster.
An NRC spokesman said the relaxed standards are very carefully considered and based on extensive documentation. “The NRC will only consider deferring the required inspections if that information clearly shows it’s reasonable to expect continued safe operations,” the spokesman said.
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