Pilgrim decommissioning continues during pandemic

As the reactor is disassembled, the spent fuel pool remains chockablock full.

Pilgrim Nuclear Power Plant is continuing its decommissioning process. — Courtesy Entergy

Work decommissioning Pilgrim Nuclear Power Station is ongoing amidst the novel coronavirus pandemic. The plant shut down permanently at the end of May. The license to the plant was subsequently transferred from longtime owner Entergy to new owner Holtec under protest from the commonwealth and local watchdog groups who argued safeguards and financing were insufficient to clean up the site and manage the spent fuel. 

Pilgrim has 1,156 fuel rods in 17 dry storage casks. These are giant stainless steel cylinders nested in giant concrete cylinders. In the plant’s spent fuel pool there are 2,958 fuel rods. The pool is filled with water and is used to cool the rods before they are deposited in the casks.The pool is considered densely packed — filled with more fuel rods than it was designed to hold. As The Times reported in May, densely-packed spent fuel pools worry some nuclear experts because water loss by industrial accident, natural event, or terrrorism could ignite the rods and create plumes of smoke laden with Cesium-137 and other radioactive materials. 

Holtec spokesman Patrick O’Brien told The Times the pandemic hasn’t impacted decommissioning work at Pilgrim. At present, the reactor is being dismantled. 

“We have been preparing for a spring spent fuel campaign by cutting up and removing the reactor containment head, reactor cavity shield blocks, and other non-necessary parts on the refuel floor,” he emailed. “Like with so many other potential things, we have a procedure related to potential pandemics. We are following our procedure, which currently has us monitoring staff, reducing in-person contact.”

O’Brien also wrote that scheduled cask and pool work continues with a goal of emptying the pool before 2022. 

“‘Spring casks campaign’ will do another 11 casks, so we will get another 748 [rods] out of the pool beginning April/May, then do reactor internal segmentation, then remobilize the fuel team and do the remaining casks and fuel through the end of 2021.” 

O’Brien went on to write that standard radiation training in a “very risk averse” industry further aids plant worker safety during the pandemic. O’Brien highlighted limiting exposure time, maintaining distance, and shielding as parallel to Centers for Disease Control guidelines on self-quarantining, social distancing, and masks and coveralls to limit exposure.  

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission, the federal agency that oversees nuclear power plants, hasn’t been around as much, O’Brien wrote, “during critical work evolutions only” but has been engaging Holtec staff with weekly calls. 

NRC spokesman Neil Sheehan wrote that the NRC has scaled back physical visits but continues to inspect remotely during the pandemic. 

“We are deferring most travel and inspections conducted by region-based inspectors, although preparations for some region-based inspections continue remotely as inspectors review documents and have remote discussions with plant personnel,” he emailed. “We are communicating regularly with nuclear plants to discuss current activities and future plans including plant staffing, medical screening, reductions in non-essential maintenance work, and other matters.”

Pilgrim critic Mary Lampert, founder of the watchdog group Pilgrim Watch, recently expressed concern to the NRC that relaxation of overtime rules may translate into longer shifts for plant workers transferring spent fuel and therefore invite fatigue. She also expressed concern that there isn’t an apparent oversight mechanism to ensure plant management becomes more deeply involved in assessing whether workers are fit for duty, especially in light of the pandemic. In an email to the commission, Lampert asked for clarity and detail. The NRC’s response didn’t offer much. 

“While the NRC is temporarily relaxing rules for overtime,” NRC spokesman Scott Burnell wrote, “if there is a need due to the COVID-19 virus, there is also a requirement for licensee management to be more involved to ensure workers in all NRC licensed activities, especially security personnel, are Fit-For-Duty and ready to perform the required procedures and actions.

Also, our project managers and the regional inspectors have had frequent communications with the licensees on the COVID-19 issues and will continue with frequent communications to ensure the sites remain safe and secure.”