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Duke Energy is bracing for the impact of the coronavirus pandemic and the possibility of staffing shortages in the operation of its six nuclear energy power facilities in the Carolinas.
Three locations in North Carolina house five reactors in Brunswick, Mecklenburg and Wake counties.
According to Duke Energy, the plants generate roughly half of the power for customers in the Carolinas.
“We have business continuity plans to ensure what we consider critical functions for a broad range of circumstances, including pandemics,” said Duke Energy spokeswoman Rita Sipe. “When the virus started weeks ago, we began reviewing them and continue to look at them daily and adjust them. Our people are very skilled and very prepared. They live in the communities and take their work very seriously.”
Among the actions the company has taken to ensure the safe operation of the nuclear plants and the safety of its employees are social distancing, a no-visitor policy, increased cleaning at plants and use of screening measures before employees enter facilities.
Duke has directed employees who are not involved with power generation or other critical functions to work from home. However, areas of a nuclear plant, such as the control room, cannot be operated remotely and are staffed by rotating shifts.
According to Maria Korsnick, CEO of the Nuclear Energy Institute, a policy organization representing nuclear technology, the nuclear industry has maintained business continuity and pandemic preparedness guidance and procedures since 2006.
“The purpose of pandemic planning is to identify options when absenteeism rises to very high levels,” she wrote in an email to Carolina Public Press.
“Prior to coronavirus, utilities proactively identified the essential personnel roles that they would need in the event of a pandemic. All nuclear plant plans put a particular emphasis on reactor operating crew availability.”
Across the industry, said Korsnick, “there is capacity within the normal operator staffing to address some increase in absenteeism.”
However, maintaining qualified personnel could become a critical factor in operating nuclear energy if the coronavirus spread worsens.
All commercial nuclear power plants are regulated by the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, an independent agency of the federal government. Operators within each plant are licensed by the NRC, and federal inspectors are located at each nuclear station.
On Friday, March 20, the NRC hosted a phone meeting with the nuclear industry to discuss regulatory impacts due to COVID-19. The meeting was open to the public.
Among the topics discussed were exemptions and regulatory relief, such as allowing power companies to extend work shifts beyond current regulations, considering exemptions or waivers to licensing, or conducting inspections off-site and deferring some inspection activities.
Ho Nieh, director of the NRC’s Office of Nuclear Reactor Regulation, said on the public call that having a sufficient number of qualified operators is an important issue.
“This is something that we have to start thinking about,” he said. “Safety is our main focus, and I am confident that we have mechanisms in place to react and adapt to any challenges. We need to ensure that plants in the U.S. are operating safely and the impact of the virus on licensees’ (ability) to bring qualified workers.”
Ho said conversations are taking place about potential nuclear industry steps to isolate key personnel to deal with major absenteeism in critical areas that may require bumping up work limits. The agency is still considering its approach, he said, and work hour limits are being evaluated.
Kevin Kamps of the organization Beyond Nuclear, a watchdog organization based in Maryland that advocates for abandoning nuclear power, participated in the meeting and told CPP that “most of the content of the call was about waivers from existing regulations.”
“But during a crisis, requirements should be strengthened, not weakened,” he said.
Additional shift hours, Kamps said, will place additional “stress and strain on workers that need to be fully attentive and alert in sensitive jobs.” A better strategy than permitting regulatory relief, he said, would be to proactively power down reactors until the threat of the coronavirus ends.
Ho of the NRR, in response to a question about who has the authority to shut down the operation of a nuclear plant, said that the “if we confront a situation if a facility is unable to meet a regulatory requirement, the NRC has a variety of mechanisms to consider.”
Among them is requiring plants to shut down if they cannot appropriately staff their facilities.
“We are in an unprecedented situation,” Ho said.
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