The US Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) has so far granted   exemptions from work-hour controls to seven nuclear power plants to ease working conditions in face of the Covid-19 pandemic

A "sudden and potentially long-term reduction in available facility staffing", such as that which may result due to the Covid-19 pandemic, was not considered during the rulemaking that established the 10 CFR 26.205(d) work hour controls, NRC Director of Nuclear Reactor Regulation Ho Nieh told plant operators in a letter on 28 March. "Exemption from this requirement will provide licensees flexibility in management of personnel resources to maintain plant operational safety and security during a period when facility staffing may be reduced due to the Covid-19 [public health emergency].” The exemption is an emergency measure, which NRC said it will consider on a case-by-case basis “to prevent impairment from fatigue due to duration, frequency, or sequestering of successive shifts”.

On 8 April  NRC published an addendum to the letter, which removed a reference to fuel facilities and two citations. It also regularly updates a “frequently asked questions” page.  

The exemptions, which last 60 days, apply to plants that can show staffing levels are affected by the pandemic, NRC said. Licensees must show they can no longer meet the work-hour controls outlined in the rules, and they can institute site-specific administrative controls for pandemic fatigue management for personnel.

NRC set out guidelines for licensees to make written requests – which may be submitted by email – for temporary exemptions to work hour limits. Licensees are still required to conduct fatigue assessments, make alternative administrative controls for fatigue management, and ensure workers are not impaired through fatigue.

The seven nuclear plants that have so far sought exemptions and expedited review received them within 1-3 days. As of 18 April, the NRC had granted exemptions affecting 13 reactors in response to requests from Arizona Public Service Company for Palo Verde, Energy Harbor Nuclear Corp for Beaver Valley, Exelon for Braidwood, Ginna, Limerick and Quad Cities, and Next Era Energy for Seabrook.

NRC is expected to grant more work-hour exemption requests as the pandemic intensifies in densely populated areas. As of 22 April, according to the Energy Information Administration (EIA), about 18.1 GWe of total 98.1 GWe nuclear capacity was offline, mostly for spring outage-related work.

Meanwhile, the Brattle Group on 14 April issued an assessment on the impacts of Covid-19 on the electric and natural gas industries up to early April “Impact of COVID-19 on the US Energy Industry”. The Brattle economists note that, up to the end of March, relative to the depth of impact on other sectors, such as healthcare and employment, there has been a lagging visible effect on the utility industry’s market conditions, in part because of the essentiality of the industry.

They point out that across six major US centralised wholesale markets operated by independent system operators (ISOs), monthly average electric load dropped 8.7% in March 2020 compared with the average of the previous four years. However, Covid-19 likely accounts for about half of this decline, as the rest of the impact, about 4.9%, or nearly 60%, is due to normal seasonal factors. From the beginning of February to the end of March, there were widespread electric load declines of 3–11% across the US, but with a bit less than half of those reductions likely attributable to the pandemic.

“Some significant utility impacts from the pandemic’s effects can already be anticipated,” noted Frank Graves, a Brattle principal and report co-author. “The utilities’ cost of capital likely has increased due to increased volatility and cost-recovery risks. Further, some merchant generators, which are directly exposed to market prices and lower demand, are likely to face financial challenges. We expect the impact of Covid-19 to become more discernable in the coming weeks as information emerges about how long the business closures are likely to last.”

The Brattle Group said it intends periodically to update its overview,  to provide empirical context for understanding how the pandemic is and may continue to affect the energy industries.