NRC grants work hour exemptions to nuclear plants

23 April 2020

The US Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) has to date granted work hour exemptions to seven nuclear power plants giving licensees flexibility to manage personnel resources to maintain plant operational safety and security during a period when facility staffing may be reduced due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

NextEra Energy's Seabrook is one of the plants to receive an exemption (Image: NRC/FPL)

The NRC, under Title 10 of the Code of Federal Regulations (CFR) Part 26, regulates work hours to ensure that nuclear plant workers do not exceed a given number of work hours within a specified period and also sets requirements for minimum rest breaks between shifts and days off during shift cycles. The regulator may, in response to applications from licensees, grant exemptions if it decides it is safe and legal to do so.

A "sudden and potentially long-term reduction in available facility staffing", such as that which may result due to the COVID-19 pandemic, was not considered during the rulemaking that established the 10 CFR 26.205(d) work hour controls, the NRC told plant operators in a letter dated 28 March. "Exemption from this requirement will provide licensees flexibility in management of personnel resources to maintain plant operational safety and security during a period when facility staffing may be reduced due to the COVID-19 PHE [public health emergency]", it said.

The regulator has set out specific guidelines for licensees to make written requests - which may be submitted by email - for temporary exemptions to work hour limits. Licensees are still required to conduct fatigue assessments, make alternative administrative controls for fatigue management, and ensure workers are not impaired through fatigue.

Exemptions give nuclear power plants some flexibility in maintaining an appropriate workforce to meet the regulatory minimum reactor operator and security staffing requirements, the NRC said on its website. "The demands of a national health emergency and the need for electricity from critical infrastructure is sufficient to justify and support the consideration of plant-specific requests to maintain the plants at power to ensure public health and safety and security," it said. Plants will, however, be required to shut down "if they cannot appropriately staff their facilities".

As of 18 April, the NRC had granted exemptions, which are valid for 60 days, in response to requests from Arizona Public Service Company for Palo Verde, Energy Harbor Nuclear Corp for Beaver Valley, Exelon Generation Company for Braidwood, Ginna, Limerick and Quad Cities, and Next Era Energy for Seabrook. Between them, these plants number 13 reactors.

Granting work hour exceptions is one of a number of measures being put in place by the NRC to ensure the health and safety of employees while maintaining its safety and security mission despite the challenges posed by the coronavirus. These include amongst other things: the establishment of dedicated web-based resources for nuclear plant and materials licensees and the public; deferring the issue of some licensee invoices; requiring its resident inspectors at nuclear plant and fuel fabrication facilities to work remotely; re-evaluating scheduled routine inspections of materials licensees, decommissioning reactor sites and stand-alone used fuel storage facilities; and ensuring other agency functions, including reviews of licence applications and renewals, licence amendment requests, enforcement and others, continue under telework conditions.

Researched and written by World Nuclear News