​U.S. to let nuclear plants defer repairs, schedule longer shifts

Inspectors at a U.S. nuclear plant. Image: Nuclear Regulatory Commission

U.S. regulators are willing to let nuclear power plants defer some maintenance and inspections as the coronavirus threatens availability of workers.

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission expects to issue guidelines on Friday for operators to request permission for employees to work longer than allowed under current regulations. The agency expects to add additional sections covering maintenance as soon as possible, a spokesman said Monday.

While the NRC hasn’t yet received any such requests, the changes under consideration reflect the potential that the virus could infect power-plant workers and impact maintenance plans.

“Based on the impact of the pandemic,” DTE Energy Co. will consider revising the “scope and duration” of a service outage at the Fermi 2 nuclear plant in Michigan, Stephen Tait, a spokesman for the Detroit-based company, said by phone Monday.

Fermi 2 powered down Saturday for planned refueling , a job that will take weeks and involves hundreds of workers conducting thousands of tasks, including replacing nuclear-fuel rods and conducting inspections and repairs.

Regulators are anticipating that plant operators may need to invoke hardship clauses to justify diverting from existing regulations.

“The hardship would specifically seem to apply to those inspections that require personnel and-or equipment to be brought on site that could inadvertently spread the COVID virus to plant personnel,” Rob Taylor, a deputy director at NRC’s office of nuclear reactor regulation, said during a conference call Friday.

The prospect that reactor operators may be permitted to deviate from existing safety policies is drawing concern from environmentalists.

"Regulations to ensure safety should be strengthened at a time like this – not weakened,” said Kevin Kamps of the watchdog group Beyond Nuclear. “It means operating nuclear plants without basic safety inspections.”

© 2020 Bloomberg L.P.

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