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Outbreak at U.S. nuclear plant shows pandemic threat to infrastructure

by Greg Klein | April 7, 2020

What might be considered an unanticipated fail-safe failure highlights the vulnerability of essential services as well as the health of a local community. After approximately 1,400 temporary workers moved into the Montgomery county region to refuel Pennsylvania’s Limerick nuclear facility, some staff began showing COVID-19 symptoms.

Outbreak at U.S. nuclear plant shows pandemic threat to infrastructure

The Limerick nuclear plant nears the halfway
point of its refuelling program. (Photo: Exelon Corp)

As of April 7, operator Exelon Corp was reporting three confirmed cases of the virus at Limerick, with another 44 staffers in quarantine. MediaNews Group reported five confirmed cases.

Prior to the workers arriving, local authorities asked the company to reschedule the procedure. “We learned of plans to bring approximately 1,800 workers into our region from around the United States,” media outlets quoted Valerie Arkoosh of the Montgomery County Board of Commissioners. “We asked Exelon to postpone this refuel until a time when the disease burden from COVID-19 was lower.”

Refuelling takes place on intervals of 18 to 24 months during non-peak periods. Exelon states that the current schedule will ensure electricity supply during the high-demand summer season.

On March 31 Arkoosh expressed concern about newly arrived staff staying at local accommodations, private homes and campsites in the region, MediaNews Group stated.

In an April 5 Mercury story, anonymous workers expressed fear about crowded conditions at the job site.

Outbreak at U.S. nuclear plant shows pandemic threat to infrastructure

Workers undergo screening for symptoms and
body temperature on arrival. (Photo: Exelon Corp)

“From the first day I got there, there were no less than 100 people in the training room being processed,” the paper quoted one source. “I have pictures from that day of people literally sitting on top of each other, no one enforcing social distancing. There were computer labs for people to take the tests they need to get into the plant, people sitting at every computer elbow to elbow.”

The worker added that the project continues to disregard social distancing in some areas “because you need multiple pairs of hands to accomplish the jobs.”

In a video statement, Limerick communications manager Dave Marcheskie conceded that “social distancing is an ever-present challenge and we continually look for ways to improve every task, every shift, every day.” He said the company bars sick or symptomatic people from the plant and requires Exelon staff to undergo a two-week quarantine on finishing their stint at Limerick. But, he said, the company has no authority to force contract workers into quarantine.

The workers are considered essential under federal and state regulations, he added.

As of April 7 COVID-19 fatalities for Montgomery county reached 32 deaths, while confirmed cases rose to 1,294, according to the Mercury. The U.S. Census estimates the county’s 2019 population at 830,915.

Thirty-two nuclear plants in 21 U.S. states have refuelling procedures planned for this spring, the World Nuclear News reports.

Some infrastructure agencies, like Ontario’s Independent Electricity System Operator, have been preparing emergency lockdown accommodations for permanent essential workers.

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