(Bloomberg) -- Over the last few weeks, hundreds of itinerant nuclear-plant workers converged on a sleepy lakeside town south of Detroit. They arrived in pickup trucks, campers and SUVs, and are now working side-by-side to refuel the Fermi 2 reactor. It’s one of 32 in the U.S. scheduled to have fuel rods replaced this spring — pandemic or not.

Installing new rods is a huge undertaking, sometimes involving crews of 1,000 or more descending on a site for a month or so before moving on to the next one. The jobs are planned far in advance, for times when power demand is low and a plant can be taken out of service, and the tasks can’t be put off.

“Outages have to happen when they have to happen,” said Michael Rennhack, the founder of NukeWorker.com, a jobs board for the industry.

Reactors are considered critical infrastructure, and servicing them is deemed essential work as the coronavirus shuts down much of the U.S. economy. Utilities said they’re doing what they can to protect crews, regularly taking temperatures and pressing the importance of hand-washing and trying not to get too close to one another. Still, there are limits.“I don’t know how you practice social distancing while you’re overhauling a nuclear reactor,” said Chris Gadomski, head nuclear analyst for BloombergNEF. “It’s a major, major construction overhaul.”At least one person at the Fermi site has been diagnosed with the virus, according to Abe Babcock, a dispatcher for the International Brotherhood of Boilermakers in Rossford, Ohio. Stephen Tait , a spokesman for plant owner DTE Energy Co., said he couldn’t confirm that, under company policy.“While we are disclosing we have positive cases of the coronavirus within our organization, we are not disclosing specific work locations,” he said. “We are going through extraordinary efforts to check the health of employees daily and anyone with flu-like symptoms is asked to return to home and seek medical attention.

Babcock sent about 50 of his union members to Fermi and said that some had to go into 14-day quarantine after being exposed to the virus, though they’ve since been cleared to return to the job.

“It's definitely a concern,” Babcock said. “Our work is very seasonal, and you have to do it when you can.” 

Towing over the shores of Lake Erie, the Fermi 2 plant is about 30 miles south of Detroit, which has emerged as a hot spot for the coronavirus. Officials in the nearby town of Monroe, a suburb of 20,000 with a quaint downtown and treelined streets, have been in touch with DTE Energy.  “We definitely have some concerns about the situation,” said Kim Comerzan, director of the Monroe County Health Department, without elaborating.

Spring is peak season for refueling, because the relatively mild temperatures mean people aren't cranking air conditioners or heaters and driving up demand for electricity. The task is usually done in conjunction with other repairs and required inspections. Most plants are in small towns, and they typically welcome the specialized labor force that fills hotels, restaurants and bars.Plant operators in Europe are also pushing forward with refueling and maintenance, with caution. The French nuclear safety authority said Friday that it suspended on-site inspections of Electricite de France SA and Orano sites when not necessary. Engie SA is continuing ongoing work at three of its seven reactors in Belgium. EDF, meanwhile, is prioritizing essential work at its 57 reactors and said the pandemic will lead to lower nuclear output as it revamps its maintenance schedule.

Precautions are being taken in Monroe County, where Fermi 2 employs about 850 people. The Days Inn & Suites is offering grab-and-go breakfasts instead of the regular buffet and monitoring the lobby so it doesn’t get too crowded, said Jennifer Davis, the general manager. “It does feel different, because of everything that’s going on.”

The project at the 1.2-gigawatt Fermi plant includes thousands of tasks, and DTE Energy will consider reevaluating the scope of the job to find any tasks that could be deferred, Tait, the spokesman, said. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission is drafting rules to grant delay requests. Besides replacing a third of the fuel rods, the big job this time at Fermi is recoating the torus, a donut-shaped component that encircles the reactor and can provide cooling water to safety systems during an accident. The U.S. Energy Information Administration estimates the project will take more than five weeks.The torus is a must-do job, but not everything is as critical. “There are some ancillary activities during an outage that can be deferred,” said Scott Burnell, a spokesman for the NRC.

The largest operator of U.S. nuclear plants, Exelon Corp., is seeking to streamline its remaining refueling job this year. Its started work in early March at its Byron and Nine Mile Point plants, and it has four others scheduled for refueling outages this season.

“We’ve looked at whether we can change the scope, or limit the number of people on site,” said Lacey Dean, an Exelon spokeswoman. But the main work will continue on schedule. “These refueling outages are really necessary.”

Rennhack, the jobs-board founder, said he hasn’t heard complaints from people on the refueling teams. “They’re contract workers. Contract workers are always worried about their next paycheck.”


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