When we think about frontline or essential workers during the Covid-19 pandemic, we often think of doctors, nurses, grocery clerks, bus drivers, and others who perform critical services and can’t work from home. But there are some frontline workers that haven’t been mentioned a lot in the news: nuclear workers.
Nuclear workers already work under dangerous conditions during normal times. But under the shadow of the Covid-19 pandemic, they face even more risk. Nuclear workers are being required to show up at their facilities, exposing themselves not only to dangerous radiation, but also to potential virus carriers.
Nuclear workers are often working without social distancing measures or even the personal protective equipment (PPE) necessary to keep them safe from the pandemic. Hundreds—if not thousands—of these workers across the country have already been infected with the virus. For example, there’s been a Covid-19 outbreak at the Grand Gulf Nuclear Station in Port Gibson, Mississippi, where there were already 89 confirmed cases of Covid-19 two weeks ago. At the Hanford Site in Washington State—dubbed by NBC News ‘the most toxic place in America’—workers are terrified of what awaits them when they go back to work:
“When you come back to work, what’s the expectation [for protections]?” asked a maintenance and operations worker at Hanford, who asked not to be identified by the Guardian to protect his job. “There are none.”
“There’s no way to keep that social distancing. You’re right up in somebody’s face, they’re breathing on you, they’re sweaty,” said the technician, who asked to remain anonymous for fear of retaliation at work.
The pandemic has also delayed major projects at radioactive waste sites across the country. For example, Covid-19 has temporarily halted most physical work on major waste projects scheduled for this year at the Energy Department’s Idaho National Laboratory and Savannah River Site in South Carolina. This means that many workers who would’ve taken part in those projects are now unemployed—but because they’re contractors, they may not be receiving unemployment benefits.
There’s a consistent theme to what is happening. On the one hand, the nuclear industry is postponing things that have an environmental and/or nuclear safety purpose: safety inspections, waste cleanup, etc. We have no objection to this because it’s necessary to postpone these things to protect workers. On the other hand, the industry is pressing forward with things that are not essential and are generally being done to protect profits at the expense of worker and public health and safety, such as refueling outages, reactor operations, and reactor construction.
Nuclear workers need protection, but most nuclear facility owners and our leaders in Washington aren’t doing anything to protect them. Nuclear workers are the first and last lines of defense for nuclear safety, and they deserve protection. That’s why we created this action to tell President Trump, Vice President Pence, and your members of Congress to protect nuclear workers during the pandemic.
We oppose nuclear energy, but we support nuclear workers who should be part of a just transition to truly clean, renewable energy. That means they should be prioritized as we phase out nuclear power plants in favor of wind, solar, geothermal, and other renewables. But right now, during this pandemic emergency, nuclear workers need special protection. After you tell President Trump, Vice President Pence, and your members of Congress to protect nuclear workers during the pandemic, share this blog with anyone you know who wants to support nuclear workers.