Victor Gilinsky and Henry Sokolski: The Hidden Nuclear Risk of the Pandemic. The coronavirus crisis highlights the resilience problem of civilian nuclear power plants. The coronavirus crisis has revealed a significant Achilles’ heel in civilian nuclear power: The plants can’t operate if their relatively few highly skilled operators get sick or become contagious and have to be quarantined, a situation that, according to news reports, some plants are getting close to. That puts a dent in nuclear-industry assertions that its plants provide a level of protection against natural events far beyond that of most other electricity suppliers. The chief problem is one of public safety. Unlike other types of electric-generating plants, nuclear plants need operators to remain in control even after they are shut down because their radioactive uranium fuel cores, typically about 100 tons, continue to generate large amounts of heat. If the heat is not removed by cooling water, it can melt the core. During the 1979 Three Mile Island accident in Pennsylvania, over half the inadequately cooled core melted in hours. The operators would surely not abandon their plant so long as they could remain at their posts, but having a skeleton crew of sick and fatigued individuals operating a nuclear plant is, to say the least, not a desirable state of affairs. A similar concern applies to the government safety regulators. At the Seabrook plant in New Hampshire, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission inspectors are doing most of their inspections over the phone from home. As one citizen oversight group remarked, while “understandable, it’s still a bit unsettling, considering we are talking about nuclear power.” A COVID-19-related notice on the NRC website states the commission “will require plants to shut down if they cannot appropriately staff their facilities,” but during a March 20 teleconference the NRC representative assured the industry that the agency was prepared to issue blanket exemptions from license requirements.
The Bullwark 27th April 2020 read more »