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Most work done, but will virus keep Fermi 2 offline much longer?

The Blade

Jul. 15--NEWPORT, Mich. -- DTE Energy believes it is ready from a technical standpoint to end one of the longest outages in the history of its Fermi 2 nuclear plant.

But it's still unknown if the coronavirus pandemic -- which swept through the plant earlier this year and is on the uptick now across Michigan and other parts of America -- will complicate efforts to restart it, or cause it to remain idle longer.

DTE spokesman Stephen Tait would not comment on the extent to which the virus has affected the hundreds of workers and contractors who have been working to get the plant refueled and back in shape over the past four months. Such outages typically last one month.

He said the company does not release numbers of infected workers, but did say this: "COVID-19 is not impacting work at the plant at this time."

But a recent exchange of correspondence between DTE and the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission suggests the utility's workload continues to be heavier than normal.

An exemption to fitness-for-duty regulations the NRC granted this spring was set to expire at 11:59 p.m. Tuesday. An NRC spokesman, Viktoria Mitlyng, told The Blade about six hours before the deadline the agency had just given DTE a second exemption.

In a July 6 letter, Peter Dietrich, senior DTE vice president and chief nuclear officer, told the NRC that major work planned for the latest outage has "now been completed in accordance with the DTE commitment and CAL [the NRC's Confirmatory Action Letter]."

That includes work planned for the submerged portion of Fermi 2's pressure suppression chamber, also referred to as the torus.

The utility came to an agreement with the NRC to fix degraded coating there, a situation that has lingered for 31 years. It was first identified in 1989, the NRC has said.

One of the concerns is that loose paint chips in drains could make it difficult for vital reactor coolant pumps to move water in the event of an emergency.

DTE, as a matter of policy, does not discuss when it restarts Fermi 2 and takes it offline for normal refueling and maintenance outages.

The NRC's website on Tuesday confirmed the plant had not restarted yet, showing the Fermi 2 reactor at zero percent.

Restarts typically take several days, as reactor power gradually ascends. Once it reaches about 20 percent, the plant is synchronized again to North America's largest regional electric grid, which serves Michigan, Ohio, and 11 other states and parts of Canada.

The current four-month outage, which began March 21, is Fermi 2's longest since the plant was forced into a yearlong shutdown because of a Christmas Day fire in 1993.

In that case, a large turbine blade with an apparent manufacturing defect broke off while spinning at high speed. It ripped through flooring of a building adjacent to the reactor and tore up several other turbine and generator parts, causing millions of dollars of damage.

Water used to put out the fire picked up low levels of radiation from the plant. The NRC eventually allowed it to be discharged into western Lake Erie.

Fermi 2, one of Michigan's largest employers, is about 30 miles northeast of Toledo and roughly the same distance south of Detroit.

DTE confirmed in early April that it had seen an unspecified number of coronavirus cases among workers assigned to perform tasks. One weekend in May, it had what the company called "an extended safety stand down" to test employees and contractors, and do more disinfection around the plant.

Utilities lose hundreds of thousands of dollars in potential electricity sales each day nuclear plants sit idle.

The plant is one of many across the United States that have or will be refueled during the spring or fall of 2020. Most refuelings are done during those two seasons, because that's when demand for electricity is lowest.

Energy Harbor's Davis-Besse nuclear plant in Ottawa County completed its latest refueling without delay this spring.

In nearly all refuelings, hundreds of specialized, out-of-state contractors augment regular plant work forces, often resulting in 1,000 or more workers assigned to any given site at a time. Work is done 'round the clock.

Officials have noted those contractors move throughout the country from job to job, bringing with them the potential of carrying viruses outside of the sites they last worked.

In response to the pandemic, the NRC created an exemption from rules which limit the number of consecutive hours workers can be on their respective jobs.

Such restrictions normally are in place to help the nuclear industry to guard against fatigue, much like rules in place to limit consecutive hours commercial airplane pilots can fly, or commercial truck drivers can haul rigs on highways.


(c)2020 The Blade (Toledo, Ohio)

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