Emergency preparedness plans are already inadequate, but the prospect of a mandatory mass evacuation at a time like this is an impossible choice.
Back in Week Two, we began warning of the danger of cascades across multiple fault lines, beyond the single threat everyone is now so focused upon. Some people think the giant Asian murder hornets now ravaging honeybee nests fit that description, but what is frightening to me is the neglect of massively destructive time-bombs carelessly designed to depend on pandemic-obsoleted systems for their care and feeding, each of them carrying, as if by nefarious design, a type of “Dead Man’s Switch” set to detonate if those systems fail. There are many, but let’s examine just one.
In the atomic archipelago there are 450 commercial reactors, untold military production facilities, submarines and carriers, research reactors, and thousands of unmediated and temporary dump sites.
In response to the CoV-19 contagion, the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission has ordered plants across the country to cut their normal maintenance schedules and reduce the number of personnel on work shifts to avoid spreading infection. In Pennsylvania, a month-long scheduled refueling was rushed to get underway before the lockdowns, and was completed in record time.
“I am concerned with Exelon & Limerick Nuclear Generating Station’s handling of the scheduled refueling — which has required bringing in workers from across the country during this pandemic.”
— U.S. Rep. Madeleine Dean, D-4th District PA.
Arriving on site at the end of March, workers at Limerick expressed terror at the crowded working conditions. On April 1, Exelon confirmed two cases of CoV-19 among the workforce. By April 8, three had tested positive and those the infected were in close contact with — 44 workers in all — were quarantined. Of those, 23 showed symptoms by April 8.
Limerick is one of more than 30 reactors nationwide that are scheduled for refueling and maintenance outages this spring. Exelon said, “We brought in 20 modular office space trailers and hired around-the-clock monitors who coach and correct workers to enforce our expectations,” but workers described being packed “elbow to elbow” into training rooms and computer labs with no social distancing in place. “Being put at risk like this makes us mad,” one worker told the Pottsdown Mercury.
“I’m in a constant state of paranoia. In my opinion, it’s just a complete breeding ground, a cesspool for this,” another worker told the newspaper. At least 1,400 workers went on site for the refueling project.
Of course, none of these workers would rush their work or cut corners to be out of there sooner, right? So we can assume the work will be of the best quality and Limerick will be safe to run on its new fuel — which may have come from dismantled Russian nuclear warheads — for many more years.
County commissioners said they first learned about “a long-scheduled maintenance operation” at the Limerick plant on March 16 and demanded to see Exelon’s pandemic response site plan.
Say what? Pandemic response what? Was that ever required in the licensing process? Uhhhh, no.
County officials concluded Exelon’s plan was not adequate for the pandemic and asked Exelon to postpone the refuel until such time as the disease burden from the virus was lower in Montgomery and Chester counties.
Exelon instead moved the April start-date up to March 27 and added a larger number of contractors — 1400 out-of-state “jumpers,” who can get up to a year’s allowed dose of radiation in one shift — in preparation for the refueling.
Exelon’s website said the company was taking special precautions:
- Sick, symptomatic or high-risk workers were and are not allowed on site.
- Limiting off-shift travel to essential paths only; to-and-from work to home or hotel.
- Limiting all off-site gatherings and abide by current social distancing guidelines as outlined by the CDC.
- Utilize Limerick’s on-site cafeteria’s “grab-and-go” meals as often as possible and avoid eating in groups.
- Use mobile delivery apps with “no-contact” drop-off options to hotel rooms.
- Sanitize all personal belongings; clothes, phone, keys, credit cards, glasses, shoes, etc.
- Limiting off-shift travel to home and work whenever possible and avoiding off-site gatherings.
- Washing hands frequently while off-duty and sanitizing personal belongings like clothes, cell phones, keys, etc.
- Wherever employees might congregate, we’ve painted spacing dots on sidewalks and floors to keep workers 6 feet apart.
- Wherever possible, we’ve released employees to work from home and staggered shifts to eliminate crowded turnovers.
“They were not implementing social distancing at all. They were packing 100 people into a classroom. It was crazy. They were running out of hand sanitizer. Stuff wasn’t being wiped down,” one contractor told the newspaper.
“People are starting to get nervous now. I am terrified. I have trouble sleeping and have crazy anxiety,” said another.
Montgomery County Commission Chairwoman Dr. Valerie Arkoosh said she was “deeply concerned” to learn that a number of the now-estimated 1,400 contract workers were staying at AirBnBs, private homes, campsites, hotels and other rental units in the Tri-county region. “I have a lot of concern. As we pointed out from the beginning, they were coming into an area of community spread here in Montgomery County. It puts at risk the people in our community.…”
According to Paul Gunter, Director of the Reactor Oversight Project at Beyond Nuclear, Limerick is not an isolated example. “The NRC will also allow nuclear utilities to require their control room operators, onsite security forces, fire brigades and other critical site personnel to work substantially longer, fatiguing shifts,” he said.
In anticipation of more and more workers falling ill to the debilitating virus, the NRC and industry are collaborating to relax “fitness for duty” licensing requirements meant to prevent the over-fatigue of operators and other critical plant workers, including security.
“Nuclear plant operators on extended 12-hour shifts, who can now be assigned to work two consecutive 84-hour weeks, will suffer excessive fatigue,” Gunter said. “This not only compromises their immune systems, but makes catastrophic mistakes more likely.” The catastrophes at Three Mile Island and Chernobyl were made worse by operator fatigue and error.
“It is not hard to imagine the level of chaos that would ensue should a nuclear accident occur during the current coronavirus crisis,” Gunter said.
“Emergency preparedness plans are already inadequate, but the prospect of a mandatory mass evacuation at a time like this is an impossible choice,” he said. “It is the duty of the NRC and FEMA to ensure workable emergency preparedness plans and procedures are in place before restarting any of the reactors currently refueling.”
Beyond Nuclear recommends strategically powering down some reactors in areas where there is reduced demand induced by the pandemic (and pre-pandemic) excess regional generating capacity. The workforces at shuttered reactors could then supplement those over-stretched at reactors still operating.
Yes, it is not hard to imagine the level of chaos that would ensue should a nuclear accident occur during the current coronavirus crisis. But what about a dozen such accidents? Two dozen? What happens when the crew of a nuclear aircraft carrier become too indisposed and fevered to control their power plant? At the present time only one US Navy Carrier remains at sea. All the rest have been docked due to CoV-19 epidemics onboard.
What happens when remediation work at leaking nuclear sites in Hanford, Oak Ridge and scores of other places is suspended?
In the early days of the Manhattan Project the teasing out of a plutonium chain reaction was called “tickling the dragon’s tail.” As the global economy goes onto a ventilator, another dragon awakens.
Nuclear energy exposes a flaw in the 20th century’s drive for profitable commercial technology over social well-being. My friend Alan Graf, a fellow retired lawyer, put it this way:
There is no dispute that the production of nuclear power will kill people, perhaps thousands over generations. But the out-front societal rationalization has always been that nukes will create so much energy that the benefit to society outweighs the deaths that will be the result.
The same philosophy, on steroids, is now being used to justify a “reopening.”
And the push will get stronger and stronger. If no vaccine or cure comes about, you will hear and see the rationale that millions of deaths are the price we have to pay to keep society open for the majority of citizens. The Dumpster is already saying this in so many words… killing 5 to 10 percent of the population to keep the other 90% going is ok.
Can a society sustain itself on that kind of rationale? Franklin Roosevelt, in his second inaugural, January 20, 1937, thought not:
We have always known that heedless self-interest was bad morals; we know now that it is bad economics. Out of the collapse of a prosperity whose builders boasted their practicality has come the conviction that in the long run economic morality pays. We are beginning to wipe out the line that divides the practical from the ideal; and in so doing we are fashioning an instrument of unimagined power for the establishment of a morally better world.
This new understanding undermines the old admiration of worldly success as such. We are beginning to abandon our tolerance of the abuse of power by those who betray for profit the elementary decencies of life.
In this process evil things formerly accepted will not be so easily condoned. Hard-headedness will not so easily excuse hardheartedness. We are moving toward an era of good feeling. But we realize that there can be no era of good feeling save among men of good will.
Many voices are heard as we face a great decision. Comfort says, “Tarry a while.” Opportunism says, “This is a good spot.” Timidity asks, “How difficult is the road ahead?”
True, we have come far from the days of stagnation and despair. Vitality has been preserved. Courage and confidence have been restored. Mental and moral horizons have been extended.
But our present gains were won under the pressure of more than ordinary circumstances. Advance became imperative under the goad of fear and suffering. The times were on the side of progress.
To hold to progress today, however, is more difficult. Dulled conscience, irresponsibility, and ruthless self-interest already reappear. Such symptoms of prosperity may become portents of disaster! Prosperity already tests the persistence of our progressive purpose.
The test of our progress is not whether we add more to the abundance of those who have much; it is whether we provide enough for those who have too little.
If I know aught of the spirit and purpose of our Nation, we will not listen to Comfort, Opportunism, and Timidity. We will carry on.
Overwhelmingly, we of the Republic are men and women of good will; men and women who have more than warm hearts of dedication; men and women who have cool heads and willing hands of practical purpose as well. They will insist that every agency of popular government use effective instruments to carry out their will.
Government is competent when all who compose it work as trustees for the whole people. It can make constant progress when it keeps abreast of all the facts. It can obtain justified support and legitimate criticism when the people receive true information of all that government does.
If I know aught of the will of our people, they will demand that these conditions of effective government shall be created and maintained. They will demand a nation uncorrupted by cancers of injustice and, therefore, strong among the nations in its example of the will to peace.
It is somewhat ironic to offer FDR here as a spokesperson for a more rational design process to achieve just prosperity for all (ecosystems included), when we all know he was the author of the Manhattan Project that opened Pandora’s box. Einstein said in later years he regretted sending the letter to Roosevelt endorsing an all-out effort to split the atom. Had he known how impotent the German bomb program had been, he said, he never would have signed the letter Leo Szilard put in front of him.
Roosevelt did not drop the A-bomb, however. That would have been Harry Truman, in thrall to a bloodthirsty cabal of generals led by Curtis LeMay, and heedless of game theory put forward by scientists like Szilard to warn them of the consequences.
Neither did Roosevelt fall for the chimera of Atoms for Peace. That would have been Dwight Eisenhower, who was sold that Edsel by corporate scions jubilant about the Republican take-back of the Capitol and eager to reassert the profit motive as prime driver of the nation and retire the antiquated, foolish call to public morality.
The question now presented is, which is it? Are we going back up the road over which hang Swords of Damocles — nuclear, climate, biotech, plastic — that would we worship them on penalty of impoverishment; or are we willing to set aside Comfort, Opportunism, and Timidity, and take the high road of moral leadership, where life — ours and other creatures’ — is held sacred and sacrosanct? If is to be the latter, then once we re-emerge from the present pandemic, we need to queue up this overdue business of dismantling those brittle overhangs — defuse the ticking time-bombs — and go about replacing them with nature’s way.
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