SEABROOK — When the Seabrook nuclear plant powered down Oct. 1 as part of its routine refueling, it "powered up" the community, bringing a temporary boost to the local economy.
Nuclear power plants use fuel that loses its efficiency over time, and are subject to fuel replacement every year and a half. The process takes about a month and about one-third of the nuclear fuel inside the plant's reactor is replaced with fresh fuel. Bundles of "spent" fuel rods, which generate heat and radiation, are then stored in a pool of chemically treated water at the plant to cool down.
The spent fuel typically takes a few years to cool down inside the pool, and is then removed, reprocessed and transferred to an off-site "dry storage" facility, where the fuel rods are sealed in steel canisters that are then sealed inside large concrete vaults.
Seabrook's delicate refueling process is planned "years in advance," according to Peter Robbins, generation communications manager for NextEra Energy, the plant's owner. He said each refueling session typically brings hundreds of workers to town from around the country to perform a synchronized set of technical, specialized jobs.
"It's a symphony of sorts. Everything is planned down to the hour because it's such a complex situation," said Robbins, adding that while the plant is powered down, NextEra also takes the opportunity to conduct maintenance on much of its equipment.
Because of the workers' high level of expertise, Robbins said many of them spend the year traveling between refueling outages across the country. When they come to Seabrook, the workers rent rooms in the town's hotels, eat at local restaurants and visit its businesses, bringing a significant temporary boost to the local economy.
Robbins said for the current ongoing outage, NextEra brought about 1,000 workers to Seabrook, resulting in what the company estimates to be a $3.3 million positive impact on the community.
Seabrook Town Manager William Manzi said NextEra's estimate sounded accurate, and he agreed that many local establishments see a bump in business each time the plant is refueled.
"There is definitely an influx, and I think that Seabrook is well-positioned to take it in terms of restaurants, shops and lodging, so I think our businesses would be the biggest beneficiary of that spending," Manzi said.
Robbins said while the plant does not disclose its refueling plans in advance for competitive reasons, many local businesses often spring into action when the refueling workers show up.
"They know why these folks are here, they understand it and they love it," Robbins said.
He added that many businesses make efforts to accommodate the crowd of contractors, some even by hosting parties and get-togethers for them.
Manzi said the monthlong boost in business is just one favorable effect the power plant has on the community and that its merits can be felt while the nuclear reactor is both online and offline.
"Seabrook Station is a big economic driver, not just for Seabrook but for the region," Manzi said. "It does a lot for the community and it's our biggest taxpayer. So not just during the refueling process but in general, Seabrook Station has definitely had a positive impact on the region."
Staff writer Jack Shea can be reached via email at email@example.com or by phone at 978-961-3154. Follow him on Twitter @iamjackshea.