A letter from 86 organizations to Vice President Michael Pence, chair of the Coronavirus Task Force, and six federal agencies points to the failure of industry regulators to act in response to the pandemic.1 The groups call for an immediate, multi-agency, industry-wide response to protect nuclear workers and the rural and suburban communities where facilities are located, and to ensure nuclear safety is not compromised.
To date, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) has not required the companies that operate nuclear power plants and other radiological facilities to implement COVID-19 plans in accordance with federal guidelines for essential workers, nor to report infections among the workforce. Some local media reports have indicated significant rates of infection at reactor sites.
"The Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) has abdicated its legal responsibility to protect nuclear workers and the public during the COVID-19 pandemic. The federal government must step up to rein this situation and protect nuclear workers and rural communities, who are paying the cost of NRC's inaction," said Tim Judson, Executive Director of the Nuclear Information and Resource Service, a non-profit environmental organization.
Since March, NRC has granted exemptions to increase limits on the number of hours employees can be required to work, and to postpone scheduled safety inspections and maintenance for up to two years. Nuclear power plants typically employ a staff of 600-1,000 full-time employees.
Workers have complained of a lack of social distancing, sanitation, PPE, and testing. Conditions make social distancing difficult, with large work crews, confined spaces, heavy equipment, contact with radiation detectors, and physical security screenings.
"NRC's absurd decision to radically increase worker overtime is strongly argued against by findings from the National Safety Council, the CDC and OSHA, all of whom conclude that the effects of excessive overtime on already stressed workers can be the functional equivalent of drinking three beers on the job – something even Homer Simpson is not permitted," notes Dave Kraft, Director of the Chicago-based Nuclear Energy Information Service.
At the same time, NRC has permitted the industry to proceed with refueling operations at 30 reactor sites, introducing 1,000-2,000 temporary workers and contractors to each site. Most refueling workers work a series of jobs, traveling from reactor site to reactor site for a few days or weeks at a time. Because people can transmit the coronavirus without exhibiting symptoms, infection can spread quickly, unknown to public health officials. While NRC requires workers to pass background checks and drug tests, NRC is not requiring coronavirus screening or quarantining of workers prior to beginning work.
"Proceeding with refueling outages at this time is creating a vector for transmission of coronavirus to dozens of rural and suburban communities, placing public health at risk," the letter states. "The federal government must act to ensure that nuclear operations do not result in transporting the virus from community to community."
The industry has also deluged NRC with potentially hundreds of requests to postpone or cancel safety inspections and maintenance projects for up to two years, until the next refueling outage. NRC is expediting approval of the requests to meet industry's refueling schedules. By not evaluating the cumulative safety risk of multiple exemptions for each reactor, NRC is permitting them to operate with otherwise impermissible levels of risk. Safety incidents and actual accidents with releases of radiation have resulted in cases when the NRC has permitted inspections to be postponed for only a few weeks or months.
"This current pandemic situation puts Illinois – the most nuclear-reliant state in the nation – on the horns of a safety dilemma: decreased reactor safety through skipped maintenance vs. spreading the pandemic," Kraft points out. "Neither is acceptable."
"What NRC is doing is grossly negligent," said Judson. "The White House must not permit increased risk of a radiological disaster during and beyond the duration of the COVID-19 pandemic. The health and safety of workers, first responders, and the public have to come first."
The joint letter recommends the following immediate actions:
- An Interagency COVID-19 Nuclear Task Force to develop plans and protective measures for nuclear workers and reactor operations. The task force should include, at a minimum, NRC, CDC, NIAIA, OSHA, FEMA, and FERC.
- Immediate halt to additional refueling and decommissioning operations at nuclear power stations until the Task Force has developed, and licensees have implemented, site-specific plans to protect workers and prevent the spread of the disease in the host regions, while also ensuring radiological health and safety.
- Reconsider increased overtime limits for nuclear workers from 72 to 86 hours per week. Increased fatigue affects workers' vulnerability to COVID-19 and nuclear safety.
- Prepare required Disaster Initiated Reviews of the impact of the pandemic on emergency response plans at all reactor sites and fuel cycle facilities.
- All requests to postpone and exempt maintenance and inspections subject to (a) a cumulative risk analysis and (b) an integrated review by the COVID-19 Task Force.
- Ensure reactors do not operate with increased safety risks, even when their operation is determined necessary to operate to maintain the electricity supply.
The letter is posted at https://www.nirs.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/04/Nuclear-COVID19-letter_W...