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File photo / TVA Watts Bar Nuclear Plant near Spring City, Tennessee

This story was updated at 4:24 p.m. on Tuesday, June 9, 2020, with more information.

The coronavirus pandemic shut down much of the economy this spring, but to keep the lights on in the Tennessee Valley TVA had to proceed with massive maintenance and refueling projects at all three of its nuclear power plants this spring.

Such work involves hundreds of workers traveling to nuclear sites for weeks of specialized tasks to inspect, repair and replace the fuel rods that power TVA's nuclear plants.

On Friday, for the third time in as many months, the Tennessee Valley Authority completed the refueling of one of its nuclear reactors using fewer workers, different work processes and more health and safety measures than in the past — all designed to help limit the spread of the COVID-19 virus.

The Unit 1 reactor of the Watts Bar Nuclear Power Plant near Spring City resumed power production this week after completing a 27-day refueling and maintenance outage that involved 1,600 TVA employees and contractors. As it did during similar refueling ouages at the Unit 3 reactor at the Browns Ferry Nuclear Plant in Alabama during March and at the Unit 2 reactor at the Sequoyah plant near Soddy-Daisy in April and May, TVA reduced the scope of the outage work at Watts Bar to limit the size of the TVA and contractor crews on site.

As the coronavirus worsened in March, TVA delayed the original schedule for the maintenance outage at both the Sequoyah and Watts Bar by two weeks this spring to revamp their approach to the work required to refuel the units, which must be done every 18 months to keep the nuclear plants running.

"We had the benefit of listening and watching what a lot of other utilities were doing with their refueling projects to see what steps they were taking to get the work done and keep their workforce safe," said Carol Barajas, TVA's vice president of nuclear oversight. "We took a number of innovative steps and procedures to do more of our work and communication via video and zoom meetings, rather than face to face gatherings, and we did everything we could to make sure our workers were healthy and, to the extent possible, were kept a part from one another and sanitized our equipment."

All workers on the refueling projects had to test negative for COVID-19 before they entered any of the nuclear plants and TVA set up health screening tents outside its plants for daily health check-and screenings with temperature checks.

"We want our workers to know that we care about their safety and want anyone who is ill not to come to work," Barajas said. "With all of the challenges presented by the coronavirus, I think we've done extremely well. We were flexible, creative and very careful in our approach and we were able to get the work done safely and on schedule."

Some of the changes implemented during this spring's outages proved successful in improving the speed and efficiency of communication and procedures and will be used even after the coronavirus is ultimately vanquished, Barajas said.

Although TVA has had workers at both the Sequoyah and Watts Bar nuclear plants test positive for COVID-19, those workers were isolated — most of them before they were even tested — and TVA has not had any deaths due to COVID-19 among either its own 10,000-employee staff or among the thousands of additional contract workers brought into the power plants during a nuclear refueling outage.

"Workers safely completed approximately 10,300 activities during the outage," said Tony Williams, Watts Bar site vice president. "Our employees take pride in working safely, and carefully following additional health precautions in place due to COVID-19 helped ensure we had a healthy workforce to safely refuel and restore Unit 1 to provide reliable, carbon-free energy."

In addition to replacing 92 of the unit's 193 fuel assemblies, detailed inspections of the reactor vessel were conducted to confirm all components continue to meet or exceed all design requirements and perform their safety functions. Other major maintenance activities included replacing or refurbishing a number of motors, valves and other plant systems and components, as well as several modifications for improving safety.

Watt Bar's two units produce enough power for 1.3 million homes. TVA also operates three units at the Browns Ferry Nuclear Plant near Decatur, Alabama, and two units at Sequoyah Nuclear Plant near Soddy Daisy, Tennessee. Collectively, TVA's nuclear fleet reliably provides approximately 40 percent of TVA's total power production in its 7-state region.

Contact Dave Flessner at dflessner@timesfreepress.com or at 757-6340

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