March 1, 2021

How to Refuel a Nuclear Power Plant During a Pandemic

Every single spring, practically 1,000 highly specialized technicians from close to the US descend on the Palo Verde Nuclear Creating Station near Phoenix, Arizona, to refuel a single of the plant’s 3 nuclear reactors. As America’s most significant electric power plant—nuclear or otherwise—Palo Verde presents all-around-the-clock power to 4 million persons in the Southwest. Even below typical conditions, refueling a single of its reactors is a laborious, month-long system. But now that the US is in the center of the coronavirus pandemic, the plant operators have had to adapt their refueling plans.

Palo Verde is anticipated to begin refueling a single of its reactors in early April—a spokesperson for Arizona Community Assistance, the utility that operates the plant, declined to give an specific begin date—but the preparations started months in advance. The uranium gasoline started arriving at the plant last autumn, delivered in the cargo bay of an unmarked semi truck. The fuel comes ready for the reactor as 1,000-pound rectangular bundles of uranium rods that are 12 ft tall and about 6 inches on just about every facet.

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The latest shipment of gas arrived at the plant properly before the coronavirus pandemic introduced the entire world to a standstill, states Greg Cameron, the nuclear communications director at Palo Verde. The most important improve with this refueling cycle, he claims, is the scope of the operation. “We’ve tried using to trim down the volume of function to just what is vital to assure that we operate for the future 18 months with no impacting the dependability of the plant,” Cameron claims.

Each and every of Palo Verde’s three nuclear reactors are ensconced in their have bulbous concrete sarcophagus and function almost totally unbiased of a single yet another. This enables plant operators to periodically acquire a person of the reactors offline for refueling and upkeep with out completely disrupting the movement of electrical power to the grid. Just about every reactor is partly refueled each individual 12 months and a half, with about one-third of the fuel in the reactor main being swapped out for a clean batch.

Including new gasoline to the reactor is like actively playing a giant match of Jenga underwater. The oldest uranium rods are moved to a keeping pool, the place they neat for quite a few several years in advance of staying transferred to dry storage casks. Considering that the electrical power created by a uranium rod decreases more than time, the remaining gasoline in the reactor has to be shuffled all over to evenly distribute its warmth right before the new rods are included. The whole process is performed with a machine that is primarily a huge variation of the arcade claw crane. that ensures the rods never leave the water, which shields radiation and prevents the gasoline from overheating.

Refueling commonly usually takes all over a month and consists of web hosting hundreds of electricians, welders, and other industrial staff who rove close to the place refueling nuclear power crops. But not all of these contractors are wanted just to leading up a reactor. Many are included with opportunistic repairs, upgrades, and inspections that can only manifest even though the reactor is offline. To cope with the pandemic, Arizona Public Assistance built the decision to only conduct repairs that are crucial for retaining the reactor functioning until eventually its upcoming refueling outage in the fall of 2021.

“Any work that is rescheduled is evaluated to ensure the affect of not finishing it is nicely understood and inside rules,” a spokesperson for the Nuclear Vitality Institute, the industry’s trade group, wrote in an email to WIRED. If a nuclear electrical power plant defers upkeep, its operators will have to display that the hold off will not compromise safety and get final acceptance from the Nuclear Regulatory Fee.

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By scaling back again the scope of the updates and repairs prepared for their reactor, Palo Verde operators halved the selection of contractors that will have to get the job done there this thirty day period. Most of Palo Verde’s staff members has been functioning remotely for months, but handle area operators and other significant workforce ought to nonetheless come in to observe the nuclear reactors. For the very last couple months, professional medical staff have worked in significant tents outdoors the facility, screening anyone coming into the ability plant for signs or symptoms of Covid-19. After refueling starts, handle place operators and non permanent workers will use different entrances to the facility to restrict get hold of amongst the two teams.

Palo Verde isn’t the only nuclear power station that will have to adapt its refueling system to cope with the pandemic. In accordance to the Nuclear Electricity Institute, just about a single-third of America’s 99 nuclear electric power crops have a scheduled refueling before June. All but two must be refueled prior to the close of the yr. But as 1 of the 16 sectors designated as “critical” by the Division of Homeland Safety, the nuclear industry—and the electricity sector much more broadly—is very well-organized to keep the lights on in the course of a disaster.

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