Regulatory relief, remote working, sanitation, and communication were key factors in the success of the spring refueling outage at Beaver Valley-2.
Energy Harbor’s Beaver Valley plant, located about 34 miles northwest of Pittsburgh, Pa., was one of many nuclear sites preparing for a scheduled outage as the coronavirus pandemic intensified in March. The baseline objective of any planned outage—to complete refueling on time and get back to producing power—was complicated by the need to prevent the transmission of COVID-19.
While over 200 of the plant’s 850 staff members worked from home to support the outage, about 800 contractors were brought in for jobs that could only be done on-site. Nuclear News Staff Writer Susan Gallier talked with Beaver Valley Site Vice President Rod Penfield and General Plant Manager Matt Enos about the planning and communication required.
Beaver Valley can look forward to several more outages in the future, now that plans to shut down the two Westinghouse pressurized water reactors, each rated at about 960 MWe, were reversed in March. “The deactivation announcement happened in the middle of all our planning,” Enos said. “It’s a shame we haven’t had a chance to get together as a large group and celebrate that yet.”
While the focus remains on safe pandemic operations, the site now has two causes for celebration: an outage success and a long future ahead.
When did outage work at Unit 2 begin and end, and what work was planned?
Enos: The outage began on April 12, one minute after midnight, and ended on May 6 at 16:33 hours [4:33 p.m.], for a duration of 24 days, 16 hours, and 32 minutes. We hit our target of 24 days.
This was a standard refueling outage that included refueling the reactor, steam generator and primary and secondary side inspections, and reactor vessel head nondestructive testing. We also had various upgrade projects, such as cooling tower work, that are typical of a refueling outage.
Penfield: I would add that we reduced our scope for this outage two weeks prior to the outage, based on the potential impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic. We got relief from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission in several inspection areas. We also deferred some repair work for a future outage. We did all the work required to make sure the plant would operate safely and effectively for an 18-month cycle.
How long did it take to get that approval from the NRC?
Penfield: All those approvals were essentially put together, submitted, and approved by the NRC inside of two weeks. We did some legwork ahead of time on those programs that we thought would be eligible as we were monitoring the COVID situation. We also looked at what other sites were doing. The formal submittal and approval process was very efficient. Our engineering department provided the technical basis for solid submittals that we can share with other utilities that have upcoming outages.
All commercial nuclear plants in the United States were required to develop pandemic plans in the mid-2000s. Leading up to the outage, were both Beaver Valley units operating under the guidelines in that plan?
Penfield: Both units were operating under a pandemic plan that we had recently updated. I would like to recognize Steve Sawtschenko, our site’s designated pandemic response manager. He was very instrumental in tracking and identifying things to do. He helped coordinate everything about our execution of that plan, and he did a great job.
Enos: Our updates to the plan were based on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommendations specific to this particular pandemic and also making sure that we met the requirements of two states. The nuclear side of Energy Harbor’s business has two plants in Ohio and one in Pennsylvania. We had to make sure that the plan would satisfy the requirements of both states. Especially in the early stages, it seemed that each state was changing or adding a new requirement every day. Our corporate team and our site representatives made sure that we had the best plan to protect our employees.
How did your pandemic plan address outage work, which brings hundreds of additional people on-site?
Enos: In several ways. Social distancing would be the first example. We altered how workers entered and exited the sites, making sure that they didn’t cross in close proximity. Critical groups were spread throughout the sites, including in some buildings that had not been used for a while. We remodeled or revamped those buildings to make them habitable, and we brought in additional trailers. We didn’t have any meetings with more than 10 people in attendance.
Also, we brought in temporary employees for sanitization of public areas and sanitization of some tools or processes that a lot of people might use. For example, we had dedicated people to wipe down the hand geometry reader at the security access point after each use. After measuring and testing equipment and hand tools such as wrenches were returned, they were wiped down before they were issued again.
We began daily screening questions and temperature monitoring. We also began wearing masks on-site. That was mandatory.
Penfield: Those are all things that are still in place. The pandemic plan allowed us the operational flexibility, if you will, to keep more people on-site during outages. It didn’t mandate certain staffing requirements. This allowed us to make sure we had the right people on-site during the outage.
Given that you had to bring in temporary staff for sanitation duties, did this outage have a higher level of staffing than a normal outage?
Penfield: No. Not even close. In fact, the outage scope changes I talked about earlier resulted in over a 200-person reduction in our contractor workforce. While we did bring in some extra people for cleaning activities, it was no more than 10 or 15 people to allow us to do all of those things.
I would say the scope reduction was done for two reasons. One was to reduce the number of personnel on-site, thus reducing worker exposure. Any time you have extra people on-site, as you alluded to, you have increased exposure. And the second was to ensure that we could get through the outage in case there was an outbreak on-site.
Was there any doubt about whether state or local authorities would allow the outage to go ahead?
Enos: Not all utilities had the cooperation of local authorities that we had. Our Regulatory Compliance Department here on-site was in constant contact with the Allegheny and Beaver County commissioners. Local politicians understood our outage; they understood what we were doing. They had no concerns, and I think that’s a real testament to being forthright with our community and their understanding of their role in supporting us, too.
Davis-Besse, an Energy Harbor plant in Ohio, completed an outage in March during the pandemic. Were you able to gather some lessons learned from Davis-Besse?
Enos: Yes, we did learn things from Davis-Besse, including the psychological impact of the pandemic. When Davis-Besse’s outage began, it was in the early stages for the Ohio and Pennsylvania area. At that time, even the CDC was still trying to understand COVID-19. Everyone wanted the answer, and even the experts didn’t have the answer. One of the lessons we learned from Davis-Besse was to have a lot of communication with your folks, keeping people aware of what’s going on. The underlying mission never changed. Our first and foremost priority was the safety of our workforce. I think we conveyed that well at Davis-Besse and Beaver Valley. And that led to the success of both outages.
Did you have any difficulty getting masks and sanitation supplies ahead of the outage?
Enos: Our Procurement Department reached out with the relationships we have with our vendors to get the required masks, to get the hand sanitizers. We were having some difficulty getting sanitizers early on, so our groups got together and started building portable sinks that if need be we could stage around the site so people could wash their hands at just about any location. It’s a story of our workforce finding innovative solutions to problems.
How did you coordinate outage preparations with contractors and vendors?
Enos: This was by no means a single-utility task. This is really a good story with our contractors and vendors such as Westinghouse, Day & Zimmermann, Siemens, and others. We still had to bring contractor staff on-site. Our vendors and contractors were huge in our success, ensuring that workers were screened and tracked prior to coming to our site. It’s not just what Beaver Valley did, it’s what everyone who worked at Beaver Valley did to ensure our success in the outage.
Penfield: Matt alluded to screening. I want to reiterate that. Our contractors were pre-screening people that they brought to the site. We had a screening checklist that they had to answer prior to coming to the site. I think it was very instrumental in our success.
How did outage training change?
Penfield: We did change how we trained people coming on site. We changed how they went through in-processing by ensuring that they maintained social distancing, and we set up classrooms to maintain that social distancing. D&Z would normally have three or four “Welcome to the Site” meetings for all the people coming in. For this outage, they had eight or nine meetings, because they needed to maintain social distance.
Enos: Normally, the week before an outage we hold an “Outage Expo.” Think of it as a fair with different booths, each with a different topic that might be “Clearance and Tagging Program” or “Fall Protection Program.” It gives us a chance to interact with every single employee with some demonstrations and practical hands-on. Obviously, with this pandemic, we could not do the expo in person, so our team got together and developed a virtual expo. They found an innovative way to get the information in the hands of those employees who might be new to nuclear so they could still be successful.
One last piece is the challenge of communication when you cannot all be in the same room. I think we’ve all become experts at Microsoft Teams [a unified communication and collaboration platform that combines workplace chat, video meetings, file storage, and application integration] over the last month. We have to come up with many different ways to get communications out when we all can’t congregate together. There’s a lot of technology out there, and that’s helped us quite a bit.
Could social distancing be maintained at all times? Wouldn’t some tasks require working in close proximity?
Penfield: You can’t completely socially distance during work if it requires two people to move something or work on a component. In those circumstances, we identified what needed to be done to keep each other safe, whether that was a face mask, a face shield, or a more robust type of ventilation device. We maintained social distancing whenever it was possible to do so. At times when it wasn’t possible, we would put other measures in place to keep people safe.
Enos: I’ll give another example. In the Instrument and Controls Shop, normally you might be paired up with someone new every day. Instead, we kept teams intact and socially distanced the teams from each other. That way you would minimize exposure if it were to happen.
Deciding how to implement social distancing and other pandemic measures must have added a lot of work to your outage prep. Can you describe those demands on your time?
Enos: It obviously was more demanding, but I can speak personally to the fact that Rod set the right vision for the station as we were watching the pandemic unfold. Everything we’re doing here supports critical infrastructure. Doctors and hospitals need electricity, and that is what we’re providing. Rod set that vision.
Our goal was to not have any COVID-related spread on-site. We asked the question of our employees: “What does it take to make that happen?” The response from the organization—not just from the management team but from those on the front lines—was to offer simple solutions that were game-changers. It started with corporate helping to develop the plan, Rod’s vision for the station, and then everyone rallying around to get it right and do it.
Penfield: It was the entire station that helped us to be successful, including our partnership with the bargaining units. We had multiple meetings to discuss “what if” scenarios. “What if this happens? What about this? How can we do that?” Ultimately, we had daily meetings, and we still have daily meetings to discuss where we are with the pandemic. We wouldn’t be successful without all the people here.
Your goal has been to avoid the spread of infection on-site. Have you had any COVID-19 infections on-site?
Penfield: We had one individual during the outage who did test positive for COVID-19. We were quick to isolate that individual, quarantine him at home, and clean the area where he worked. We identified all personnel who had indirect or direct contact with him. Following our plan, we quarantined people who had direct contact with that individual and monitored those who had indirect contact. That was the only individual we’ve had on-site that had COVID-19 to date in mid-May. We continue monitoring that and continue screening people before they come to work to make sure we stay on top of it.
Unit 1 was operating at full power during the Unit 2 refueling outage. Did the Unit 2 outage and all the movement on-site impact Unit 1 operations in any way?
Enos: We made changes that did impact it, but they were not negative impacts. For example, we share a common control room, so we put up physical barriers. When people would go to work on Unit 2, they would not go through Unit 1 areas, even if it meant taking the long way around. We basically “quarantined” Unit 1, including key critical groups such as operations, radiological protection, and chemistry. They were the only ones who could access certain areas in Unit 1. Our job was to divide the site in two—the outage unit and the online unit—and quarantine Unit 1 so it would not be impacted.
Now that the outage is over, do you still have separation between Unit 1 and Unit 2 staff?
Enos: There is some separation that normally occurs, and we are minimizing interaction. Only critical access to the control room is permitted. Right now, the number of people on-site is pretty limited. One of the things we did post-outage is divide the union staff and supervisors into split shifts. Normally, we would be pretty heavy on daylight work. Now we’re working on daylight and afternoon shifts to minimize the number of people on-site at any given time.
How have operations changed because of the pandemic?
Penfield: I’d like to point out that we haven’t changed any standards, and we haven’t adjusted any execution requirements. We are maximizing our social distancing behaviors, wearing of masks, and hygiene. But if a standard requires two operators to be in one location, then we are following the standard. We still have training requirements for the operating staff, and they are practicing social distancing in the training simulator. We’re doing that in the control room to the maximum extent possible as well.
Have unforeseen challenges required Beaver Valley to alter its pandemic plan?
Penfield: There weren’t any unforeseen challenges that would cause us to say, “Oh man, we didn’t even think about this. We have to put something in place in short order.” That hasn’t occurred. The pandemic plan we had was well thought out. But there have been some tweaks based on the situation. For instance, when an individual tested positive, we entered a different stage of the pandemic plan, and that was a conservative approach. Going forward, if we had another case, we would probably wait for evidence that the virus had been transmitted on-site before we would change stages. Some nuances like that are being clarified in the plan. Also, we have adjusted our plan to be in compliance with changing CDC and state guidance. Outside of that, there hasn’t been anything we’ve experienced that required us to say, “Hey, we’ve got to update our plan.”
Now that the outage is over, are you sharing lessons learned with other Energy Harbor plants and with the broader nuclear community?
Penfield: We have weekly calls with the other plants. Every Monday, the site vice president has a call with the Institute of Nuclear Power Operations, along with our executive vice president, who is responsible for the pandemic plan. We share with INPO all the actions we’re taking and what’s working well. The chief nuclear officer also has a weekly call with other CNOs on what is going on with the industry regarding the pandemic, what different sites are experiencing, and what help or ideas they can offer. It’s a wide-open information exchange on several different fronts.
Enos: First and foremost, we are still operating a nuclear power plant. We share lessons learned to make sure that behaviors that have made the nuclear industry successful over the years are not undone by COVID-19.
Unit 1 is licensed to operate until 2036 and Unit 2 until 2047. Beaver Valley no longer has the threat of closure in 2021. Are you and the plant staff looking ahead to decades of continued operations?
Penfield: Yes, we are. The company is positioned very well to continue operation of the plants. Here at Beaver Valley, we’ll be putting together our five-year strategic plan. Once that is done, we will make it a little bigger—we’ll make a 10-year strategic plan. We’re definitely operating as though we’re going to be here long term.
For Unit 1, would the five- or 10-year plan include possibly seeking subsequent license renewal?
Penfield: Yes, our plan could possibly include subsequent license renewal.
As we speak, in mid-May, are staff who have been working remotely beginning to return to the site?
Penfield: That process hasn’t begun yet. We do have a “return to work” plan put together. We’ll follow the state’s guidance and execute our plan when the state allows it.
Our focus on preventing the spread of the virus has actually heightened since the end of the outage. As the states open, I think our risk goes up, so we’re continuing to make sure folks are aware of that, and we are redoubling our efforts. I’m very pleased with everyone that was here in Beaver Valley and what they’ve done. I am very happy that the employees here worked through all these issues and we came out of this, so far, fairly unscathed.