Sunday, June 26, 2022

Emergency declaration at Brunswick Nuclear Plant means intense workload, no reinforcements for staff

On Saturday, the plant filed an emergency declaration with the United States Nuclear Regulatory Commission, indicating a "potential degradation of the level of safety of the plant" or threat to facility protection due to conditions caused by then-Hurricane Florence.

Brunswick Nuclear Plant, off River Road in Southport, is currently under federal emergency status, which waives the plant from regulatory requirements that pertain to employee work-hours and alloted breaks. (Port City Daily photo/Johanna Ferebee)
Brunswick Nuclear Plant, off River Road near Southport, is currently under federal emergency status, which waives the plant from regulatory requirements that pertain to employee work-hours and alloted breaks. (Port City Daily photo/Johanna Ferebee)

BRUNSWICK COUNTY — The Brunswick Nuclear Plant is dealing with a potential water shortage and, after a federal emergency declaration, normal regulations on how long employees can work have been waived.

Up to 15,000 customers could still be without potable water in southeastern Brunswick County, due to water main breaks caused by recent flooding.

RELATED: Brunswick County divided into three ‘isolated islands,’ thousands with limited or no water

Meanwhile, 300 staff members have been working tirelessly to keep the nuclear plant stable, on round-the-clock shifts at the plant. After the plant filed a federal emergency declaration, it’s now exempt from maintaining work-hour and break requirements for its employees on-site.

‘Unusual event’

On Saturday afternoon, Duke Energy declared an emergency at its Brunswick Nuclear Plant to the United States Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC). The cause of the emergency is classified as an “unusual event.”

Though “unusual events” are the NRC’s first step in federal emergency classification, they indicate a “potential degradation of the level of safety of the plant” or a security threat.

The plant announced it would begin shutting down its two boiling water nuclear reactors Thursday in anticipation of Hurricane Florence’s arrival. According to Rita Sipe, Duke Energy spokesperson, the first unit was shut down “early evening” Thursday, with the second following some time after. As of Monday, both units are still offline, with no set restart date.

To keep the plant stable, 300 Duke Energy personnel have remained on-site since the storm hit. With limited employee change-outs, some groups are working 12-hour shifts, while others work 10-hour shifts, Sipe said.

Flooded conditions

In the plant’s emergency declaration to the NRC Saturday, Duke Energy cited “on-site conditions sufficient to prohibit the plant staff from accessing the site via personal vehicles due to flooding of local roads by Tropical Storm Florence.”

Yesterday, Brunswick County Chairman Frank Williams said flooding and road conditions in some areas could worsen as rivers and creeks are expected to crest. Williams described the county as split between three isolated “islands,” virtually inaccessible from each other.

Regardless, Sipe said yesterday that flooding isn’t an issue.

“There is no storm-related flooding on the site,” she said. “Some employees have traveled to the site in personal vehicles and others have left the site to check on their homes.”

Still, supplies were flown in Monday to re-stock the plant with food and water.

While Brunswick County Public Utilities is working to restore water services to the area where the nuclear plant is located, Sipe could not confirm whether or not the plant had access to running water. However, she did state that there were accommodations at the plant for employees to shower, with drinking water available.

Williams said public officials have been in constant communication with the power plant since then-Hurricane Florence’s landfall. Though he was not certain whether or not the plant had running water, he said he had not yet received any indication of concerns. According to county manager Ann Hardy, the plant checked in with the Emergency Operations Center yesterday and “everything was fine.”

Work-hour requirements

During normal operations, NRC regulations require nuclear plant employers to curb its employees work hours so as to not exceed the following limits:

  • 16 work hours in any 24-hour period
  • 26 work hours in any 48-hour period
  • 72 work hours in any seven-day period

Work breaks for successive periods are also outlined, including a minimum of:

  • A 10-hour break between successive work periods or an 8-hour break between successive work periods when a break of less than 10 hours is necessary to accommodate a crew’s needs.
  • A 34-hour break in any 9-day period

“At its most basic, the NRC does require that plant workers have time off sufficient to make sure that they can continue to do whatever function they are assigned to do at the plant,” Scott Burnell, NRC spokesperson, said.

These requirements are waived during “declared emergencies,” like the one declared by Duke Energy Saturday.

“When a plant is in abnormal circumstances, those limits are relaxed, to some extent, but there still remain work hour limits,” Burnell said.

In declared emergencies, hour-load decisions are left to the discretion of a plant supervisor. The supervisor assesses an employee’s physical stamina, including the potential cumulative fatigue and the potential for circadian degradations in alertness pertaining to risk-significant functions, according to the NRC’s waiver regulations.

According to Burnell, there are procedures in place for plant employees to report regulatory concerns anonymously. With NRC personnel on-site, Burnell said any allegations would be taken seriosuly.

“The NRC always takes very seriously any allegations of failing to follow our requirements,” he said.

Because the NRC’s allegations program is confidential, Burnell could not disclose whether the agency has received reports regarding Duke Energy’s Brunswick Nuclear Plant.

“There are regulations for certain jobs that limit work hours,” Sipe said. “We are complying with all regulations.”


Send tips and comments to Johanna Ferebee at johanna@localvoicemedia.com

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