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Maryland PIRG has joined NIRS (Nuclear Information and Resource Service) and 85+ other groups in signing a letter to the White House and Coronavirus Task Force asking them to strengthen safety and public health measures for nuclear power industry.
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, including 109 workers at the Vogtle Nuclear Power Plant in Georgia as of Monday.
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.
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.
The letter included a list of 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.
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