Nuclear plant operating with essential staff, limiting other access

The NextEra Energy Seabrook Station nuclear power plant overlooks Seabrook Harbor. Essential staff is operating the New Hampshire plant, which is about 14 miles by water from Cape Ann.

SEABROOK, N.H. -- Amid the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, the company that owns the Seabrook, New Hampshire, nuclear power plant is continuing to operate the facility with only essential personnel, while the Nuclear Regulatory Commission is doing most of its work to monitor the plant remotely.

In a statement Friday afternoon, Lindsay Robertson, spokesperson for NextEra Energy, which owns the Seabrook nuclear plant, said the company has implemented its “pandemic plan,” and is following its procedures for ensuring continuity of service.

“This includes limiting access to our control centers to essential personnel only and putting various processes and procedures in place that are designed to limit the spread of the virus,” said Robertson in the statement.

Additionally, Robertson said the company has been encouraging its employees to follow recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the World Health Organization to protect themselves and others from the virus, per NextEra’s “standard preparedness protocol.”

“We have a strong track record of preparing for many kinds of emergencies, and we are prepared to respond to the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic,” said Robertson.

According to Diane Screnci, spokesperson for the NRC, the commission is continuing oversight of the Seabrook plant and other facilities licensed by the commission, although much of the work is being done over the phone.

Screnci said the NRC’s resident inspectors are onsite at a reduced frequency, and are able to do their jobs remotely.

“The resident inspectors have been to the plant this week and they are continuing to do oversight, but they’re doing a lot of it by telework,” said Screnci. “If there’s a safety issue they’re ready to go in, and they can remotely monitor plant systems, and they can gather information working from home.”

Natalie Hildt Treat, executive director for C-10, a local organization that monitors the Seabrook plant, participated in a conference call last week with members of the NRC and other nuclear officials, as well as NextEra representatives.

The C-10 Foundation monitors the safety of the Seabrook  nuclear power plant because six Massachusetts communities — Amesbury, Merrimac, Salisbury, Newburyport, Newbury and West Newbury — are within a 10-mile radius of the plant and are considered part of the New Hampshire plant's emergency planning zone.

The plant sits about 17 miles northwest — as the seagull flies — from parts of Gloucester and Rockport.

According to Treat, NextEra declined to answer questions on the specifics of its pandemic response during the call.

She said C-10 has called on NextEra to provide greater transparency and more details on how it prepared for this pandemic, what the company is doing to protect its employees and ensure continuity of operations, and what it will do to maintain minimum staffing levels if key employees fall ill.

After the call, Treat offered the following statement to the Times' sister paper, The Daily News, via email: "We understand that Seabrook employees are taking the threat of COVID-19 extremely seriously, and that they are doing all they can to protect the health of their employees and ensure the safe operation of the plant, which is an important part of our region's electricity mix.

 “We also understand that the NRC is compelled to prioritize its resources, and that this extreme situation may necessitate some streamlined processes and relaxing of protocols. While understandable, it's still a bit unsettling, considering we are talking about nuclear power,” she said in the email.

To read the NRC’s COVID-19 update, visit https://www.nrc.gov/reading-rm/doc-collections/faq/coronavirus.html

Staff writer Jack Shea may be reached at 978-961-3154 or jshea@gloucestertimes.com. Follow him on Twitter @iamjackshea.

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