• Business

    Nuke Workers Flock to U.S. Small Towns for Can't-Wait Refueling

    (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.” For more articles like this, please visit us at bloomberg.comSubscribe now to stay ahead with the most trusted business news source.©2020 Bloomberg L.P.

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    Food Supply Is the Next Virus Headache

    (Bloomberg Opinion) -- It’s not just manufacturing that’s struggling with disrupted logistics. As more countries bring down the shutters to limit the spread of the coronavirus, risks are rising for the world's complex food supply networks. Snarl-ups in processing and transport could result in painful price spikes for many fresh goods, even if farms in developed markets can keep working through the outbreak.The picture isn’t all gloomy. On a global scale, stocks of corn, wheat, soybeans and rice are healthier than before previous periods of food inflation. While some prices have been heading higher, increases aren’t across the board. Sugar and corn have been held back by reduced demand from biofuels producers as oil plummets. Low fertilizer and crude prices, meanwhile, will help offset other rising costs for farmers.Yet with infection rates rising there are worrying signs of fraying nerves, as countries engage in their own version of the toilet paper panic. Kazakhstan has banned exports of buckwheat and wheat flour to preserve domestic supplies. Russia, the world’s top wheat shipper, could limit some sales overseas, a threat that has already pushed up prices. Vietnam, meanwhile, is stockpiling rice and has suspended new export contracts. During the 2006-08 spike, such behavior accounted for 45% of the increase in rice prices, and almost a third for wheat, according to a study published by the World Bank.For now, such protectionism isn’t the norm. Kazakhstan, after all, accounts for less than 5% of wheat exports. And cereal harvests are looking decent. The U.S. Department of Agriculture expects global wheat production to rise almost 5% this year, while rice is seen as stable. Still, supply of key products is concentrated. With restrictions dragging on and more countries scrambling to contain the virus, the resilience of the world’s shopping basket will face further tests.After years of low food inflation, several factors were already pushing up bills before the coronavirus pandemic: severe droughts in Southeast Asia and Australia; an African swine fever outbreak in China that decimated the world’s largest pork producer; and, more recently, swarms of locusts in Kenya, Pakistan, India and beyond. The United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization said in January that, left unchecked, the number of crop-munching insects could increase 500 times by June. One desert locust can eat its own weight in a day — about 2 grams — and swarms contain hundreds of millions.While prices are still well below 2008 or 2011, there are glimpses of how quickly the situation could change. Chinese food prices surged more than a fifth in January from a year earlier as the epidemic took hold, and pork prices more than doubled. Rice is already feeling the combined impact of drought, rising demand from stockpiling households and export restrictions. Prices for standard Thai white rice have risen for six straight weeks, to more than $500 a metric ton, the highest level since 2013. Such gains encourage more beggar-my-neighbor economic policies, to the detriment of all.Then there are bottlenecks caused by virus restrictions. Deliveries and logistics have caused trouble since the outbreak began. Transpacific shipping troubles hampered exports to China from the U.S.;  in China, livestock producers struggled even within the country, finding themselves unable to get feed, and then blocked from sending poultry and eggs to market. It’s a problem that could easily repeat itself elsewhere. Coffee traders are already warning of disruptions: Closures in Brazil, El Salvador and Colombia, and missing stevedores, are driving the volatility.Labor is an additional concern. Virus restrictions prevent workers such as distributors and pickers from moving across borders. Laborers migrating to farms in France, or heading to pick fruit in Australia, may find it harder unless they are already in place. France’s agriculture minister last week encouraged unemployed people to go to work on farms; it’s unclear how many can or will heed his call, and at what price.Workers also face the risk of getting ill. That particularly threatens more labor-intensive corners of the industry, such as palm oil plantations or meat processing plants, as Aurelia Britsch, head of commodities research at Fitch Solutions, points out. In both, contaminated workers have already proved disruptive. Malaysia’s biggest palm-producing state, Sabah, has closed down operations in several districts until mid-April after some workers fell sick.In much of the world, preemptive policies can keep things moving. China’s Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Affairs, for example, brought in incentives for sowing and mechanization in early February, as well as support for livestock farming, and “green channels” to help the movement of feed, breeding animals and produce. Governments can encourage trade, rather than nation-level hoarding. As the virus spreads, wealthier countries may also need to support developing ones, especially those hit by elevated import bills and weakened currencies. Disruptions will be inevitable. A global food crisis doesn’t have to be.This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg LP and its owners.Clara Ferreira Marques is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering commodities and environmental, social and governance issues. Previously, she was an associate editor for Reuters Breakingviews, and editor and correspondent for Reuters in Singapore, India, the U.K., Italy and Russia.For more articles like this, please visit us at bloomberg.com/opinionSubscribe now to stay ahead with the most trusted business news source.©2020 Bloomberg L.P.