The Nuclear Regulatory Commission on May 18 sent a letter to Vice President Mike Pence in response to a coalition of critics who had written to the vice president in April, taking issue with the agency’s COVID-19–related actions.
The coalition’s message: In a 12-page letter, representatives of 86 organizations—including Beyond Nuclear, the Nuclear Information and Resource Service, Public Citizen, and the Union of Concerned Scientists—denounced the NRC’s decision to consider licensee requests for temporary exemptions from certain agency requirements during the coronavirus pandemic. The letter stated, “By allowing nuclear reactors to operate during the pandemic with exemptions and waivers without any review of each location’s emergency preparedness plan, the NRC is creating an increased nuclear safety risk during and after the greatest public health emergency the United States has faced in one-hundred years.”
The letter also demanded that the White House Coronavirus Task Force immediately take a number of actions to protect the health and safety of nuclear industry workers and the general public, including the following:
Create an interagency COVID-19 task force, staffed by members of “all federal agencies with jurisdiction over the risks posed by the coronavirus and nuclear industry operations,” including the NRC, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, and the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission.
Direct the new task force to reevaluate NRC exemptions from work-hour control regulations for reactor power operators.
Subject all current reviews of licensee petitions for postponements and exemptions of scheduled maintenance and inspections of reactor systems, structures, and components (including those seeking expedited review during refueling outages) to (a) a cumulative risk analysis and (b) an integrated review by the COVID-19 task force.
The NRC’s measures: NRC Chairman Kristine Svinicki’s three-page response provided a summary of measures taken by the agency to address the pandemic. “To date, the COVID-19 public health emergency has not resulted in safety issues or events at any NRC licensed facility,” Svinicki stated. “If the NRC identifies any facility where the impact of the COVID-19 public health emergency creates concerns about continued safe operation, the agency will take necessary steps to ensure public health and safety.”
According to Svinicki, “The steps taken by the NRC staff include the identification of regulatory requirements that could pose challenges during the declared public health emergency and the areas where the staff believed that temporary flexibilities, such as approved exemptions, would not compromise the ability of licensees to maintain the safe and secure operation of NRC-licensed facilities. The NRC staff communicated the processes available to licensees for requesting these flexibilities in a transparent way through public teleconferences. . . . During the COVID-19 public health emergency, the NRC staff has established and communicated additional criteria describing the conditions under which it would expedite licensee requests for relaxation of or exemption from certain regulatory requirements.”
Svinicki further noted that all requests for COVID-19–related temporary regulatory relief are reviewed by the staff on a case-by-case basis and are granted only if adequate controls are in place to maintain safety and security. “Additionally,” she said, “the NRC staff has implemented an oversight strategy that takes into consideration both plant status and local health conditions in an effort to ensure the safety and security of the plants without conflicting with federal, state, or local guidelines for protecting the health of on-site personnel and NRC inspectors.”