In The News

WSJ: Inside the Refueling of a Nuclear-Power Plant as Coronavirus Hit

Generating station near Chicago had to revamp planning for job involving hundreds of extra workers; ‘no fun sitting in the dark’

BRACEVILLE, Ill.—The coronavirus pandemic has put much of life and business on hold, but some things can’t wait—such as refuelings at a nuclear-power plant.

It is a mammoth undertaking involving thousands of maintenance jobs and an influx of hundreds of workers over a few weeks—all tightly choreographed and within the confines of a single plant. In other words, a potential breeding ground for a pandemic.

At the Braidwood Generating Station outside Chicago, planning for the refueling began two years ago but had to be revamped quickly when the coronavirus hit, said John Keenan, site vice president for the plant.

“In the beginning of March, our world started to change,” said Mr. Keenan in an interview at the plant from behind a face mask. “My initial reaction was, ‘Boy, our outage isn’t until April 20. We’ll have plenty of time to see how this goes. Hopefully this peaks and will go away.’ Within hours of having that thought, we realized that this wasn’t going to play out.”

As critical infrastructure, the plant has contingencies for all kinds of disasters. Its latest pandemic plan was developed in 2008 after the bird-flu outbreak, but it would have to be reworked and used for the first time in a real pandemic. A search of pandemic gear in storage at the plant turned up 27,000 masks, some of which were sent to other plants and the rest used locally.

For some workers, given the dangers of nuclear work, standard gear is even more stringent than what the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends for the pandemic. On a recent day, Brian Hale, a 39-year-old radiation-protection technician, donned double gloves, two body suits and an air-filtering hood as he and five co-workers wrestled a 70-foot-long seal from the edges of a pool of radioactive water. After removing the inner-tube-like seal, they chopped it up and stuffed it in barrels.

“We’re very focused on the task at hand,” he said. “We’re essential workers. It wouldn’t be fun to be sitting at home in the dark.”

At Braidwood, which came online in 1988, the two reactors power a total of 2.5 million homes and businesses. Each one is taken offline for refueling every 18 months on a staggered schedule in the spring and fall when power demand is lower. During refueling, one-third of the reactor’s uranium rods are replaced with new ones. While the reactor is shut down, the power-generating side of the plant undergoes extensive maintenance.

With more than a thousand workers expected for the refueling, Braidwood managers began going over every detail of the planned outage. The goal was to push off any jobs they could to other years, reduce the number of workers on the site and revamp anything that would involve too many people crowded together.

Read the full article on Wall Street Journal.