How pandemic poses unique safety challenges for PSEG Nuclear

Ensuring workers are protected, social distancing — on and off site — is just one of many COVID-19 concerns during refueling process

By Tom Bergeron
Lower Alloways Creek Twp. | Jun 8, 2020 at 5:02 am

When you work in the nuclear industry, ultraspecific rules and precise regulations come with the territory.

“There’s no tolerance for mistakes,” Eric Carr said. “This is a group of people that’s used to having a whole bunch of rules. So, for us and our workforce, it wasn’t atypical for us to say, ‘Here are 15 new things we need you to do.’”

But, to pretend the COVID-19 pandemic was just another wrinkle in regulations wouldn’t be accurate, either.

Carr, the chief nuclear officer at PSEG Nuclear — the person who oversees the company’s three nuclear generating stations in New Jersey — will be the first to admit that.

Earlier this spring, when the company had to refuel Salem Unit 2 — a process that involved taking the reactor off line and bringing in hundreds of specialty workers to do the weeks-long job —  Carr faced one of the biggest challenges of a nearly three-decade career in the industry.

Not only did Carr have to make sure the work got done, he had to ensure the workers doing it were protected in new ways — as were the other full-time workers at the facility.

Doing so meant extending the care and concern for these workers to a new level — both when they were on site and off.  The vigilance for safety didn’t begin and end with the workday, Carr said. The company needed to do all it could to ensure the workers were following proper protocols 24/7.

An outbreak at a nuclear facility would be devastating, Carr said. Simply put, the number of people trained, qualified and certified to do a lot of the work is limited.

“There are few industries like nuclear power,” he said.

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PSEG Nuclear
Eric Carr of PSEG Nuclear.

Refueling a nuclear reactor obviously is nothing like a fill-up — or even an oil change and a tune-up — at a gas station.

Carr said it involves disassembling parts of the reactor, doing major maintenance on components you can’t work on when it is in operation and then replacing a third of the fuel. It needs to be done every 18 months.

Salem 2 was the first reactor due for maintenance since the COVID-19 pandemic reached New Jersey. Carr, however, was fortunate in that Salem was not the first plant in the country to take this on.

The industry, he said, is very close-knit. The circle of those trained to do the work is very small.

“There are only 20 or so people in the country that have the same job as me,” he said. “So, we have a couple of different forums where we come together to share ideas and best practices.

Carr said his group had twice-weekly meetings with other nuclear officials, as well as numerous internal meetings over COVID concerns starting in February.

Reducing manpower on refuelings was difficult — it already was a lean operation. But Carr and his team determined that nearly 450 of the 1,500 regular workers would be able to work remotely from home.

Then, working with their colleagues in the industry, Carr and his team developed a plan for social distancing and determined the specific needs of personal protection gear. Some contractors — due to the nature of the work — already use such gear. Carr and his team needed to ensure any gear brought in for use was up to COVID-19 standards of safety.

PSEG implemented the safety standards that are now commonplace: temperature checks of employees, requiring PPE use, setting up personal hygiene stations throughout the facility, distributing sanitization kits and putting markings on the floor to illustrate distancing.

They also identified the extremely essential workers — such as those working in control rooms — and completely isolated them from anyone entering the facility.

Carr and his team realized, however, that protocols for when the work was occurring was only one issue.

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The Salem plant was used to bringing in hundreds of specialty contractors for refueling. And, while each contractor had to pass a vigorous screening before each visit, social distancing when they arrived had never been a part of that process.

When Carr and his team did a workflow analysis, detailing every moment of employees from the time the arrived at the gate to when they started turning a wrench, as he put it, Carr realized the in-processing procedures were going to be a problem.

Carr also realized he couldn’t ask the workers to follow guidelines if they didn’t feel the company was fully behind the measures.

“One of the foundations of human performance is that, if you want humans to behave appropriately and do what you want them to do, you’ve got to make it easy for them,” he said. “If you make it easy for people do the right thing, you got a good chance of doing it. If you make it hard and put it all on them and say, ‘Hey, make sure you’re 6 feet apart, even though I’m not going to give you adequate space to do so,’ then they’re not going to do it.”

PSEG brought in 18 trailers and two huge party tents for the refueling period.

“We needed to make sure every employee had their own individual space,” Carr said.

And not just for the start of the week. These areas were used throughout, during break time, meals and for meetings.

“We used to throw everyone in one big room, where they would be sitting shoulder to shoulder,” he said. “We can’t do that anymore.”

PSEG also had to be aware of what employees do — and where they go — when they weren’t at the plant, Carr said.

This involved not only making sure nearby hotels and campgrounds were available — a process they worked with state officials to ensure — but keeping track of the actions of employees when they weren’t on site.

That’s where it gets tricky, Carr said.

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Putting guidelines on employees when they are not on their own time is going to be a big issue moving forward — in all industries.

Carr said the guidelines were in the best interests of everyone — and that the company set expectations before vendors arrived. It was easy, after all, to show what can happen when such guidelines are not followed.

“There have been some experiences at other utilities where they had someone come on site for a refueling that was ill for a week — someone who just felt that they were run down from working a lot of extra hours — and that person ended up affecting a number of other people around them and that utility had to send over 40 people home to quarantine.”

Carr said PSEG set up calls with more than 500 vendors and sent follow-up notes explaining the protocols it wanted to put in place.

“We wanted to make sure they understood that we were going to put expectations in place on how they would behave, so we don’t have some kind of outbreak,” he said. “It was important to make sure that the vendors were on board and that they behaved the right way when they left the site.

“So, our focus was to make sure that they understood all the requirements when they’re on site — but also, what we expect them to do when you’re not on site,” he said. “We wanted to let them know we didn’t want them hanging out close together in the lounge at the hotel, smoking and joking.”

Carr said there wasn’t any pushback — and that company is continually monitoring the situation to see how it can improve safety standards during future refuelings.

Is it better to house all workers in one hotel or have them spread out? Can the company do their laundry to ensure all clothing is properly cleaned? Is the company allowed to monitor off-site facilities?

For Carr, it’s all about the safety of a critical workforce that cannot easily be replaced.

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The numbers are telling.

Carr said nuclear supplies nearly 40% of the power for the state — and more than 90% of the green, or non-carbon-emitting energy.

The number of people trained to do the jobs required to keep nuclear running is limited.

Then, there’s this: People can carry the virus for days without knowing it.

Carr said he feels PSEG has been ahead of the curve, but he admits it’s challenging to operate when you don’t know what’s coming around the bend.

“It’s going to be a lot easier the second time around, because nothing about this is a simple task,” he said. “We did have foundational pandemic procedures and processes in place, but they’re a little generic. They have to be tailored to what the current challenges are.

“In this case, one of the biggest challenges was around testing. Figuring out who’s sick and who’s not sick. The fact you could have this for days and have zero symptoms and still be on site is a huge challenge.”

One the company will face again in the fall, when Salem 1 needs to be refueled. Carr said his team will be ready.

“The fact that we’ve made all these changes very quickly, put a whole new set of rules in place and then educated the workforce on what they were, and then followed through and consistently reinforced what those standards are, has been the key to our success,” he said.

Carr said treating each person individually has been a key, too.

“Every single person that we have come on site needs to have their own space,” he said. “That’s the goal. So, we end up doing all the math, laying out a site map and saying, ‘We can put a trailer here, we can put a trailer there, here’s how many people can be there.’ That’s how we’ve attacked it.

“We have made the onsite workforce as small as we can make it, but we’ve also ensured that we do have reliable operations because we can never sacrifice nuclear safety.”

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