What is a nuclear power plant refueling outage and why would anybody hold one right now, during a pandemic?
Because a reactor can’t run without fuel. An outage is a brief interruption in power production to swap out old fuel for new, and it happens on a schedule set years in advance. It’s essential to the continuing flow of electricity, which we need to run everything from the computer or phone you’re reading this on to the equipment in hospital intensive care units.
Nuclear energy, which supplies 20 percent of America’s electricity, is not as conspicuous as hospitals and medical labs in the battle against this pandemic, but without energy, the front line would collapse. The U.S. Department of Homeland Security has recognized nuclear energy plants as “critical infrastructure,” needed for the national recovery from the pandemic.
In plainer language, Peggy Noonan, the former Reagan speechwriter, said in an op-ed in The Wall Street Journal recently, “Everything works—and will continue to work—as long as we have electricity. It’s what keeps the lights on, the oxygen flowing, the information going. Everything is the grid, the grid, the grid.”
So, our plants around the country are being prudent by changing some procedures where needed, to minimize risk, but pressing ahead with an essential process that can’t be delayed.
Outages Allow Plants to Keep Providing Reliable Electricity
The next few months will be challenging for everyone, and those who can isolate themselves will do so to the extent possible. But everyone cocooned in a house or apartment will still need electricity. So will the supermarkets that refrigerate food, and the factories that process food, and the ones that make all the things now in short supply, from hand sanitizer to toilet paper.
Some reactors have already completed their spring refueling outages; some are in midstream and some will start soon. Everyone, in the nuclear energy industry and everywhere else, will adjust as conditions evolve. The safety of the public and the workers has always been, and remains, the industry’s top priority.
How Is a Nuclear Reactor Refueled?
Once every 18 months or once every 2 years, depending on design, workers open up the reactor vessel, and using a crane and other mechanical tools, move about one-third of the oldest fuel bundles to a used fuel pool, reshuffle the younger bundles still in the reactor, and add fresh ones. The fuel itself is ordered, manufactured and delivered to the plant over a period of months before the refueling.
So, the refueling of a nuclear reactor is analogous to topping off your gas tank or recharging the battery in your car, except in this case the new carbon-free fuel allows the plant to reliably operate for up to two years.
A reactor is loaded with uranium in the form of ceramic pellets, which fill a long metal tube, to form fuel rods. These are bundled together, with a big handle on the top that can be grabbed by a crane.
Part of the uranium fuel (the isotope U-235) is used up while the reactor generates electricity.
What Else Happens During Refueling?
Reactors run smoothly and reliably for up to two years at a time, but they need maintenance and inspection. Some of this can only be done when the reactor isn’t running. So, the refueling periods—three weeks or so—are periods of intense activity.
The people who do this work are highly specialized, and they move from plant to plant during refueling season, which is generally in the spring or fall when electricity demand is lower. These workers include electricians, pipe-fitters, welders, industrial X-ray experts and other kinds of technicians.
How Do We Minimize Spreading the Virus During Refueling?
Our industry has had pandemic guidelines since 2006, and these were updated early this year. They include keeping masks on hand and exercising social distancing.
The specific actions taken by individual plants will vary based on local conditions and that plant’s status. Some of the steps include:
- limiting the size of essential face-to-face meetings to small groups and exercising social distancing
- using personal protective equipment as appropriate and increasing hand sanitizers and germicidal wipes at strategic locations
- screening workers at the plant gate and, at some plants, taking their temperature
- disinfecting surfaces more often
- closing or limiting access to cafeterias and other places employees congregate
- increasing the number of handwashing facilities
- directing employees who don’t feel well to stay home, encouraging them to seek medical attention and asking for a report on their condition.
Health experts say that one of the first lines of defense is frequent hand-washing. But most people are using water that is either purified, delivered or heated with electricity.
Already the pandemic has left us short of various products. Let’s not add electricity to the list.
That’s why outages that allow nuclear plants to continue to run are essential.