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Millstone's positive COVID-19 cases include control room operators

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Waterford — Millstone Power Station’s COVID-19 response, which faced criticism from some of its employees earlier this month, has now drawn the ire of the watchdog group Connecticut Coalition Against Millstone.

The group took issue with Millstone beginning the refueling of one of its two active nuclear reactors — a monthslong process that calls for bringing in 750 temporary workers — despite knowing of coronavirus cases among employees. Emails between Millstone/Dominion Energy and the state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection show the parties were aware of the first positive case by April 13, 11 days before the refueling started.

The group’s other chief complaint is that of 11 positive cases at Millstone, some are among control room operators. This new information, gleaned from the coalition’s state Freedom of Information request for emails between DEEP and Millstone/Dominion and filed as a result of a May 3 story in The Day, had not been publicly announced.

“As of April 24, 2020 or sooner, the State of Connecticut knew that some of the 11 Millstone employees who had just tested positive for COVID-19 are licensed operators who work in crews in the Unit 2 and 3 control rooms,” a May 18 news release from the coalition read. “Federal and state regulators withheld this information from the public.”

Millstone’s pandemic management

Millstone spokesman Kenneth Holt said the lack of positive cases since April 29 is proof of the station’s proactive safety precautions.

“I think it’s clear that we are being successful in managing our response to the coronavirus,” Holt said. “That’s best exemplified by the fact that we haven’t had any new cases at Millstone since April 29th.”

Holt confirmed that about 500 tests have been conducted on Millstone workers.

Millstone has identified 11 positive cases among its employees, three of whom are control room operators. One is a Millstone employee who had traveled to New York and was in self-quarantine.

Holt said all 11 people who tested positive are back at work after testing negative multiple times. All of the cases were asymptomatic.

Coalition director Nancy Burton asserts that by not suspending the refueling, Millstone is exposing its employees and putting the general public at risk. But as Holt and DEEP Radiation Division Director Jeffrey Semancik said, as long as Millstone has an adequate number of licensed operators available, the refueling can go on as scheduled.

Holt said Millstone has a staff of 89 licensed operators.

“If we felt we couldn’t operate the reactors safely, we would shut them down,” Holt said. “That has not been the case. We’re talking about a small percentage of people who tested positive.”

Holt added that Millstone did contact tracing with the positive employees. Millstone must have, at minimum, two licensed operators in the control room 24/7, according to NRC spokesman Neil Sheehan. Plant operators at one facility cannot pick up and help out somewhere else — their certifications are for specific plants.

“There are typically three or four licensed operators in the control room, and the control room is easily large enough to allow for social distancing,” Sheehan wrote in an April 22 email to Burton.

Semancik said that if Millstone drops below its staffing requirements, it would have to report this to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, and it would be a public notification.

“There is no set number of positive COVID-19 cases that would cause the NRC to step in and halt a refueling and maintenance outage,” Sheehan wrote in an email to The Day.

Holt could not say whether Millstone has a threshold of positive cases where Dominion, by its own accord, would suspend the refueling.

“I’m sure there is in one in our plans, but it would be a lot more than 10,” Holt said.

“It’s more of a calculus based on the number people available in critical roles,” Holt wrote in a follow-up email. “We have a minimum number of people required to operate the reactor including licensed operators, shift technical advisors, health physics technicians, security officers and chemists. If we are unable to fully staff those positions, decisions need to be made about operation of the reactor.”

According to Semancik, DEEP doesn’t have the power to suspend refueling — that falls to the NRC or to Millstone/Dominion.

“The NRC has specific staffing requirements for licensed operators,” Semancik said. “After that, it becomes a business decision. Do they have enough people to do the work or not? That’s really up to them.”

Pushing buttons

Beyond needing to maintain a certain staffing level, having control operators who tested positive raises other problems. The coalition’s FOI request revealed a particular concern by DEEP.

“Millstone is an interesting case,” Semancik wrote in an April 26 email to Dominion contacts. “The control room must be staffed 24/7 by a limited number of licensed operators. While they try to maintain social distancing, there are space limits. They also have to manipulate switches that can’t be easily cleaned due to concerns about inadvertent actuation.”

In essence, there is fear of accidentally pressing an important button because of the necessity to constantly clean surfaces created by the pandemic.

Burton felt this reason enough to stop the refueling.

“It’s outrageous!” she said. “They’ve identified positive employees in the control room, and they have the power to create a catastrophe by pressing the wrong button.”

She also took exception to the discussion of social distancing in Semancik’s email.

“The NRC has been trying to assure us for months that this will not be a problem because they will honor principles and practices of social distancing,” Burton said. “The emails from Mr. Semancik absolutely blow those notions away.”

Holt acknowledged the “knobs, dials and switches that you wouldn’t want to flip accidentally.” But, he said, “That’s why we took steps to protect people in the control room, to limit access. We made hand sanitizer available to everyone so they could clean their hands.”

Burton and Holt have been on opposite sides of the issue of nuclear power for more than a decade, and they acknowledged the mention of the other’s name with a tired familiarity. Burton said Holt is a mouthpiece for Dominion who will say anything to make sure the company’s bottom line stays healthy.

“Ms. Burton is entitled to her opinion about how we should run the plant, but we know how to operate a nuclear facility,” Holt said. “We’ve had plans in place to respond to the pandemic since 2006, regularly looked at and updated, based on the most current information available. If we did not think we could operate the plant safely, we would shut it down. We still feel we can safely operate, and we have."

Worldwide nuclear response to COVID

Sheehan noted refueling and maintenance outage work has taken place at numerous nuclear power plants across the country since the pandemic began.

Libbe HaLevy, an author, anti-nuclear activist and host of Nuclear Hotseat, a podcast centered on nuclear news, has been paying close attention to how the nuclear industry is handling the COVID-19 crisis in her broadcasts for months now.

She spoke to a situation in Newport, Mich., where 237 workers have tested positive for COVID-19 at DTE Energy’s Fermi-2 nuclear reactor, causing a temporary work stoppage during its refueling outage work. Every worker at the plant — more than 2,000 — were tested for the virus.

“They should have stopped the refueling before it started,” HaLevy said, referring to Millstone. “At Fermi, they knew they had one case. They should have done what was done in Japan at the Genkai Nuclear Plant, where they were doing follow-up work to build an anti-terrorism facility. One worker tested positive on April 14. Then, all civil engineering work at the plant halted that night. The company has not restarted the project and does not know when it will. That was the response in Japan after one positive. Here, there was one positive they knew about in Fermi before the refueling, they let it go ahead, and now they have 237 positives that we know about.”

HaLevy also faulted Millstone for touting its low number of positive cases despite the hundreds of employees, temporary or otherwise, who haven't been tested.

"How many licensed operators are cleared for Millstone?" HaLevy asked. "Out of those, how many have tested positive so far? And knowing that there's a latency period, how can the numbers go up if you don't test?"

s.spinella@theday.com

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