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Millstone moving forward with reactor refueling amid COVID-19 pandemic

Waterford — Millstone Power Station’s two nuclear reactors are partially refueled every 18 months, and the monthlong process typically requires an influx of hundreds of specialized workers, including electricians, pipefitters and others, who typically travel to execute the same kinds of operations at plants across the country.

But amid the COVID-19 pandemic, operators have had to restructure this spring’s refueling for Millstone's Unit 2 reactor to ensure the safety of both resident and visiting workers. That effort will include social distancing protocols but should be carried out successfully, Millstone spokesman Ken Holt said, as workers at the plant already have been practicing social distancing over the past several weeks.

The governor announced his Stay Safe, Stay Home orders last month, and Holt said that while the plant has had some of its employees work from home, those who still must come in to the plant are required to keep their distance from others and are conducting meetings by teleconference rather than in person. Employees also are required to take their own temperature every day before coming to work and have it taken again before entering plant facilities.

Holt said there are also more hand sanitizing stations throughout the plant and custodial staff members are taking extra care to keep surfaces sanitized. Additionally, he said, access to the plant’s control room now has even stricter restrictions. Those who need to speak to control room operators must now call instead of entering the room. He said those sitting in the room are able to maintain distance from one another, but special care is being taken to protect them. However, the plant has several backup staff available, should any control staff fall ill, he said.

“Is social distancing tricky? It can be. But we are doing it,” Holt said. “The health and safety of everyone who works at Millstone is our priority. We are ensuring people are staying safe and are not spreading coronavirus.”

Holt said last week no employee at the plant has tested positive for COVID-19, the disease caused by the virus.

Millstone provides enough energy to power 2.1 million homes and currently employs about 900 workers, he said.

In preparation for this spring’s refueling, Holt said, plant operators have been intensely planning over teleconference calls and video chats.

He explained that a third of the "spent" fuel of one of Millstone's two reactors is replaced with new fuel during the partial refuelings, which are staggered so at least one reactor can still supply energy to the grid while the other is taken offline. Unit 2 is scheduled for refueling in the coming weeks, while Unit 3 will be refueled this fall. Unit 1 was decommissioned in 1998.

The refueling process, which may require employees to be in close quarters with one another, involves shutting down the reactor and removing and replacing 65 to 70 of the reactor’s fuel assemblies, which Holt said are 8 by 8 inches wide and 14 feet long and made up of bundled fuel rods of uranium oxide pellets.

After used fuel rods are removed, they are transferred through underwater canals to cool in a holding pool before eventually being transferred to dry storage casks. The entire process, which all takes place underwater, is executed with what Holt described as a highly precise "arcade" crane claw operated by plant workers.

Holt said social distancing should not disrupt the flow of such work.

While the plant usually sees 800 to 1,000 contractors from the region and elsewhere in the nation during refueling, Holt said plant operators are trying to determine what personnel are absolutely necessary, as some of the maintenance, repair and inspection work typically carried out by outside contractors while reactors are offline may be postponed. 

Only repairs and maintenance that are absolutely essential to keep the reactor safely running until its next refueling 18 months from now will still occur, he said. The process still will take about a month to complete.

By a fluke chance earlier this month, plant workers received some practice with social distancing while carrying out urgent repairs after the plant’s Unit 3 reactor automatically shut down April 1 due to a circuit fault.

The incident was not "complicated," according to an “event notification” filed with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission by Dominion, the company that owns the Millstone Power Plant, and it posed no danger to the public, Holt added. As of Tuesday, Unit 3 was still shut down, according to the NRC's reactor status report for the day.

NRC spokesman Neil Sheehan said by email last week the agency is continuing its oversight role during refueling and maintenance outages, both with the on-site presence of inspectors and remotely. He added during the unexpected reactor shutdown, one of NRC’s resident inspectors assigned to Millstone on a full-time basis responded to the site to independently verify plant safety and that NRC inspectors have since been following up on the company’s troubleshooting efforts, any repairs and plans to restart the reactor, he wrote.

“Despite the challenges posed by the COVID-19 emergency, the NRC’s full-time inspectors assigned to operating U.S. nuclear power plants remain on the job,” Sheehan wrote. “This has meant adapting by performing reviews remotely when possible and using multiple communications channels to stay in close contact with plant personnel and fellow NRC staff regarding activities at the facilities. There are still times, however, when they need to be present at the sites. During those times, the inspectors are following all recommended social distancing and safe hygiene protocols.”

Justin Fuller, NRC's senior resident inspector for Millstone, said while "there’s still some face-to-face interaction going on, people are still following best practices."

Fuller said he has observed that employees, instead of having game-plan huddles before working on a task, are holding meetings in large circles, standing far from one another and speaking louder so everyone can hear, while stricter measures are now in place for the plant's control room. Fuller said virtual meetings also are being held to further avoid person-to-person contact and employees have been careful to wear gloves if sharing tools while performing maintenance tasks, among other measures. Additionally, he said the NRC has provided masks for him and fellow inspectors to wear at work.

m.biekert@theday.com

Editor's Note: This story has been updated to correct the dimensions of a fuel assembly.

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