Keeping the lights on during the pandemic

NOW: Keeping the lights on during the pandemic

BRIDGMAN, Mich. - When you think about essential workers still on the job during the Coronavirus pandemic, you probably count the doctors, nurses, first responders, grocery store workers, truck drivers and more. But what about the critical job of running Michiana's nuclear power plant?

Just how are they handling the coronavirus? And, what would happen if they had a major outbreak?

As you drive toward the Donald C. Cook Nuclear Power Plant in Bridgman Michigan, what you notice gives you a sense of security.

First, the huge steel-reinforced concrete containment domes protecting the outside world from the reactors and radiation inside as well as the clouds of white steam coming off the sprawling complexes’ non-radioactive cooling system.

The second thing you see is a private security force of heavily armed guard, some carrying assault rifles, watching over everything and checking vehicles on the way in and out.

And nobody gets “inside the fence” without going through strict screening protocols including airport style body scanners, bag searches and hand-geometry devices.

Lt. Paul Smith is a Security Supervisor and showed ABC57 News how it all works.

And it’s not just any fence surrounding the plant. It has razor wire, sharpened spikes and steel re-enforced gates strong enough to stop a speeding semi.

“If something does happen it would take multiple failures of redundancy,” said Smith.

“We are absolutely safe. We have not decreased any of our security officers inside our facilities. The requirements have not changed because of the Covid-19 outbreak,” said Joel Gebbie, an American Electric Power Chief Nuclear Officer.

Keeping a safe social distance, Gebbie opened up about the major changes forced by the Coronavirus including cutting the number of workers at the plant from about 800 each day down to 400.

He explained how they’re making sure the power stays on for everyone stuck at home during the pandemic.

“We recognize that we are critical infrastructure here. We have reduced the amount of work we are doing inside the plants so we have fewer people in there who could potentially be infected. People are wearing the gloves, they’re wearing the masks, the face shields, the face covers, everything. The operators in the main control room are actually wearing latex gloves to operate the equipment which we’ve never seen in our industry before and we have a whole army of cleaning people who are disinfecting every surface we touch inside the plant,” said Gebbie.

They’ve also created a path, using yellow boot prints six feet apart leading everyone to a warehouse that’s been turned into a new coronavirus check-in station.

As every employee comes to work now they have to stop at the station, put on latex gloves and take their own temperature to make sure they don’t have a fever.

If they answer yes to any questions about Coronavirus symptoms, they’re required to notify their supervisor and will be turned away from the plant.

So far plant officials say only one employee has tested positive for Covid-19 and is safely recovering at home but several others have been sent for testing as a precaution.

If the pandemic gets even worse and they have to lock down the facility, key workers would actually live on-site in an RV village set up in two massive parking lots.

“It’s opened up ready to go. I have some stuff staged at home in case we get the phone call. We see the gravity to the scenario, Covid-19 and how it’s obviously impacting us,” said Smith, regarding his own RV.

The Niles native would have to be away from his home to help keep the power flowing to as many 1.5 million other homes.

“Will it be easy? No. But my family they’re very supportive, they understand. When I signed my terms of employment here I understood that there was a potential for something unfortunate to happen, things uncomfortable that would impact my family and this would be one of those occasions,” said Smith.

Smith and the rest of the essential employees at Cook know the plant’s 2,100 megawatts of power can’t just be shut off with the flick of a switch even because of a worldwide health crisis.

“It’s a service that we provide to the community, keeping the lights on, and so whatever we have to do…if it’s being here during a pandemic outbreak we’re willing to be here to make sure our customers get what they need,” said Smith.

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