SEABROOK – Two Massachusetts senators and a congressman are calling on the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and NextEra Energy to release more information on how they are protecting workers from the coronavirus pandemic during the Seabrook nuclear plant’s refueling.
Democratic Sen. Edward Markey and Elizabeth Warren, and Congressman Seth Moulton, D-Salem, sent letters Monday to the NRC and NextEra Energy, the owner of the nuclear plant.
Seabrook Station — like all nuclear plants — undergoes a monthlong refueling outage every two years, usually during the spring or fall when demand for electricity is lower. Seabrook’s shutdown began April 1.
In an email to The Daily News on Tuesday, NextEra spokeswoman Lindsay Robertson reiterated a previous statement that the company has been “closely assessing” the impact of COVID-19 and urging its employees to follow recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the World Health Organization for protecting themselves and others from the virus.
“Just as we do with our emergency situations, we have implemented our pandemic plan and are following our well-established procedures for ensuring continuity of service,” Robertson said in the statement. “This includes limiting access to our control centers to essential personnel only and putting various processes and procedures in place that are designed to limit the spread of the virus.”
But in the letter sent by Markey, Warren and Moulton, the lawmakers called for specifics. In the letter, they ask the NRC about recent notifications to licensees, including Seabrook, that they may seek exemptions from regulatory requirements during the pandemic.
The NRC has directed inspectors at all nuclear power plants to shift to remote monitoring of plant operations, even during refueling, raising questions about ensuring the efficacy of inspections. Additionally, Seabrook was recently granted a temporary exemption from requirements for work control hours, which would mean longer shifts by workers and the need for heightened oversight to ensure safe operations.
In a separate letter to NextEra, Markey, Warren and Moulton requested a copy of the company’s pandemic plan and a staff briefing, highlighting the need for clarity of safety procedures with hundreds of temporary workers and contractors involved in the refueling at Seabrook. Refueling workers at another nuclear power plant in Pennsylvania have already tested positive for the coronavirus, the lawmakers said.
“This large influx of workers into the confines of Seabrook portends dangerous conditions conducive to the spread of the coronavirus – not only among the contract workers, but among the permanent employees and surrounding communities that provide food, housing, and other essential services to the entire Seabrook workforce,” the lawmakers said in their letters to NRC Chairman Kristine Svinicki and NextEra Energy CEO and Chairman James Robo.
In her email, Robertson said any response to the letter from NextEra would be to its authors.
Natalie Hildt Treat, executive director for Amesbury nonprofit C-10, which monitors activities at Seabrook Station, previously reached out to NextEra and the NRC for information on the refueling. While she received some information from the NRC, she said on Tuesday that she was glad lawmakers were calling for more transparency.
“While it sounds like NextEra is taking reasonable steps to stop the spread of COVID-19, there is no clarity on how they are tracing and reporting cases of the illness among their workers, or the contractors who may be traveling to another nuclear plant for maintenance work after they’re done at Seabrook,” Treat said.
“When I spoke to NRC Senior Resident Inspector Paul Cataldo last week, I got some reasonable explanations as to why some inspections are being deferred, such as restrictions on overseas travel,” she said. “But what concerns C-10 are the issues we don’t know about. For example, we’ve heard that the reactor coolant pump is one area that has zero tolerance for leaks. To wait another 18 months to inspect it could be risky.”
She added, “We hope that our congressional delegation is able to get some satisfactory answers in the name of public safety.”