Nuclear Power Safety and the COVID-19 Pandemic

March 26, 2020
Bjoern Schwarz/Flickr
Ed Lyman
Director, Nuclear Power Safety

With the world facing overwhelming and immediate threats from the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, the risks of nuclear power are probably far from the thoughts of most people. But there is no escaping the fact that nuclear plants, which provide about 20 percent of the U.S. electricity supply, require highly-trained staff to operate them safely and to protect them from terrorist attacks.

They also need periodic maintenance to ensure that critical safety systems remain in good working order. And, they must be closely supervised by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) to ensure that plant owners are effectively implementing nuclear safety and security requirements.

However, the NRC does not generally oversee the health and safety of plant workers unless it is related to radiation exposure, so it is largely up to the plant owners themselves to implement protective measures against COVID-19 to ensure they have a functioning workforce. Reports about potential coronavirus cases among the workforce at Plant Vogtle in Georgia and allegations of a lack of enforcement of social distancing protocols there raise concerns about the adequacy of the industry’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

During crises such as the current pandemic, ensuring that nuclear power plants operate safely and reliably is even more critical. Tens of millions of Americans live within 50 miles of operating nuclear power plants. A reactor accident or terrorist attack could release a large amount of radioactive material into the environment, potentially exposing many people to high levels of radiation. As the world saw after the 1986 Chernobyl and 2011 Fukushima accidents, such an event at a U.S. nuclear plant might force people from their homes for months or longer and contaminate food and water supplies—the last thing Americans need to deal with right now.

Compounding the impacts of such a disaster with the social and economic disruptions caused by spread of the virus would further strain an already fragile health care system and economy. Thus it is incumbent on the NRC to make sure that the pandemic does not compromise nuclear safety and security—and if it does, to take whatever actions, including ordering plant shutdowns, are necessary.

However, the NRC will likely face tremendous pressure from nuclear plant owners, some of whom are financially strapped, to keep their plants running and generating revenue. The NRC should have developed a policy long ago to address these questions, but like the rest of the U.S. government, it is now playing catch-up fast.

Short-staffing nuclear plants

A key question the NRC may soon face is how it should react if a nuclear plant is unable to maintain the required numbers of licensed control room operators and security personnel per shift. For example, a single control room at a two-unit plant must be staffed with three operators and two senior operators. Also, there must be at least ten armed responders on each shift to protect the plant from radiological sabotage attacks—and the actual number most plants have committed to providing is likely higher. There are also regulations governing work hours and fatigue management that were put into place partly to address excessive overtime issues that arose after the 9/11 attacks. Licensees could apply for waivers from work hour restrictions if the number of available personnel were to decline, but those extensions would be limited due to the potential for fatigue. If a plant is unable to meet any of these requirements, it generally must shut down unless the NRC provides an exemption from the regulations or relief from license commitments.

NRC can allow reactors to operate while in violation of their legally binding license commitments by granting a “notice of enforcement discretion.” The radiological risk to public health and safety will generally increase when the plant is operating outside of approved license limits. In evaluating whether to issue a notice of enforcement discretion, the NRC uses a standard that there should be “no significant increase” in radiological risk after reactor owners have implemented compensatory measures.

This standard is nominally the same during a pandemic or other national emergency as at any other time. But difficult choices may be necessary if nuclear plant shutdowns were to jeopardize the availability of electricity during such an emergency, which is unlikely given that most regions of the country have supply well in excess of their reserve margins and COVID-19 is suppressing demand. In any event, such considerations are beyond the scope of NRC’s authority to ensure radiological safety and security.

The industry’s proposal: increase risk

These issues are not new. In 2006, the NRC held a workshop to consider the impacts of a pandemic flu outbreak on safety. A number of difficult policy questions were discussed, including the potential need to sequester workers early in an outbreak and the effect of high rates of absenteeism. But little was done to resolve these questions.

In 2007 the Nuclear Energy Institute (NEI), the nuclear industry’s main trade organization in Washington, submitted a draft “Pandemic Licensing Plan” to the NRC for review. The plan recognized “the potential for an influenza pandemic to reduce nuclear plant staffing below the levels necessary to maintain full compliance with all NRC regulatory requirements,” described “the regulatory actions necessary to permit continued operation with reduced staffing levels for approximately four to six weeks” and recommended, “NRC enforcement discretion as the most efficient and effective licensing response to a pandemic.” In justifying this approach, NEI argued that “regulatory relief to permit rescheduling of selected activities and deferral of most administrative and programmatic requirements would balance the risk from continued operation with the risk from regional blackouts and grid instability.”

At the time, the NRC did not buy NEI’s argument for broad and pre-approved enforcement discretion that would increase radiological risk during a pandemic, responding that

“the NRC staff finds that without bounding entry conditions and more specific technical bases for the proposed regulatory relief, NEI’s approach still presents significant challenges that may prevent meaningful overall progress in pandemic preparation.  For instance, the plan contains only limited justification concerning the public health and safety need for nuclear power plants to remain on-line during a pandemic; likewise, the plan does not adequately explain why increased safety and security risk may be offset by considerations of need for electric power.  Moreover, the plan continues to raise other significant legal and policy issues that would need to be resolved.”

The situation today: too little, too late

Although the NRC and NEI continued to discuss these issues more than a decade ago, there is no indication that their differences were ever resolved. Concern about an influenza pandemic was overshadowed by the Fukushima accident. Today, the NRC is in a different place. Three of the four sitting commissioners are Republicans who embody the spirit of the pro-industry, anti-regulation Trump administration. It would be shocking to see the NRC staff criticize an NEI proposal in 2020 the way it did back in 2008.

In an NRC public meeting on March 20 to discuss regulatory issues related to the coronavirus pandemic, an NEI representative referred to the 2007 NEI Pandemic Licensing Plan as the basis for the industry’s regulatory contingency approach, and no one from the NRC raised the staff’s previous concerns about the plan. The NRC staff said that the agency was planning to issue a memorandum to provide guidance on enforcement issues, but did not address the standards it would be using to approve enforcement discretion—and in particular, whether it now accepted NEI’s argument that a net increase in radiological risk would be appropriate to reduce the unlikely risks to the electrical grid.

The NRC assured me today that its risk standards for granting enforcement discretion have not changed and that if they deemed any plant unsafe they could and would issue an order to shut it down. More details should be available when it releases its Enforcement Guidance Memorandum later this week. However, there may be extreme circumstances where the NRC may have to make difficult decisions that would involve the balancing of radiological risk and electricity supply risk. If so, the NRC will need to consult not only with other government agencies responsible for grid security and infrastructure protection but also with the public. Such discussions should begin now. Hopefully, it is not yet too late to come up with a satisfactory answer.

The featured image in this blog is courtesy Bjoern Schwarz/flickr.