Monticello nuclear plant site vice president stresses process, project control

Xcel Energy’s Karen Fili is a hard person to track down. There’s a good reason for that. Since being named the new site vice president at the Monticello Nuclear Generating Plant in late August, Fili said she hasn’t been in the office a great deal. Instead, she’s busy doing walkdowns and visiting employees.
“To me, it’s about the people,” Fili said, referring to being at ease with longtime employees and a plant workforce that she says is engaged and extraordinary.
Fili joined Xcel Energy in 2011 as vice president for nuclear capital projects. She previously held leadership positions at New Orleans-based Entergy and Akron, Ohio-based FirstEnergy Corp in maintenance, operations, oversight, project management, engineering and business services. Fili succeeds Mark Schimmel, a 35-year nuclear industry veteran who has been named to lead special projects at Xcel Energy’s nuclear fleet headquarters in Minneapolis.
Fili hasn’t had much trouble finding her away around the plant during the last month and a half. “I know a lot of plant personnel from being here the previous 18 months and they know me,” she said, referring to her on-site presence in the recently completed power uprate that will boost plant capacity to 671 megawatts.
“I was here almost every day of the outage,” she said. “If you look at other industry extended power uprates, rarely does one come up without the plant tripping offline for some reason. That didn’t happen here at Monticello. We brought the plant up slowly and safely. We have a very good running nuclear plant right now.”
The outage really began before March 1, Fili said. “We planned for the outage throughout 2012. My projects background was one of the reasons why I came to Xcel.”
Fili worked with FirstEnergy Nuclear Operating Co. for five years. She held three positions with First Energy. One was the director of projects. That’s the position Fili took when she left Entergy in 2007.
“I was the fleet director, and I was responsible for capital and operations and maintenance projects across the board at three FirstEnergy nuclear power plants: Davis-Besse, Perry and Beaver Valley. All of the managers of projects reported directly to me and I was responsible for the capital budget and the implementation of all the major upgrades to all of the plants. It was a very fun job.”
Fili earned her bachelor of science degree in engineering from Mississippi State University and her MBA in business and finance from Mississippi College.
She recalls her father being her earliest and most important influence. Cecil J. Davis graduated from Mississippi State University in 1959 in mechanical engineering and was a registered professional engineer in the state of Mississippi.
Fili’s father was a lifetime member of the American Society of Mechanical Engineers. He worked at Ingalls Shipbuilding from 1959 to 2001, starting his career as an engineer. He later qualified as a shift test engineer for the U.S. nuclear submarine program and became a chief test engineer.
Her father performed testing and oversight of reactor startups and participated in many sea trials on submarines.
He later moved to the overhaul division of Ingalls and then as head of the U.S. Navy training department.  He also represented Ingalls by advising both the Israeli navy and the Italian navy.
Fili’s international connections with the nuclear industry also run deep, she said.
In 2011, she was invited by Endesa, largest electric utility company in Spain and  majority-owned subsidiary of the Italian utility company Enel, to form an oversight partnership to improve plant performance.
“I was the only person invited to speak at their European nuclear oversight conference,” Fili said. “There were probably 50 people from 50 different plants from all over Europe. When you share what your plant does the focus deals with safety; it’s amazing. I still talk to these guys. They came over and spent a full week visiting our FirstEnergy plants.”
Fili said she has a keen focus on process and project control. “With my background as an engineer, and having a financial background, I focus on making sure a project is controlled from birth to death,” she said, adding that Xcel Energy required 820,000 person-hours to execute the recently completed plant uprate project.
An engaged and accountable workforce is a key component in a utility’s success, Fili said, adding that before she started her career as a mechanical maintenance engineer at Entergy’s Grand Gulf Nuclear Station she worked as a deckhand on a shrimp boat in the Gulf.
“I feel so comfortable going back into the shop at Monticello plant,” she said. “I walked back there one day and got my first taste of lutefisk. I’m a Southern girl. I’ll taste anything once,” she said,
One of Fili’s early management priorities has been completing face-to-face meetings with all plant management personnel, In a recent interview at the plant, Fili said she’s about halfway through that process.
“I visit the control room every single day,” she said. “The control room is the heart of this plant.  I have to have an operations focus. That’s the imprint I want to leave. My role is to make sure we safely operate the plant, keeping it as a viable option in the Xcel Energy mix for nuclear for the next 17 years [of licensing] and beyond. I make time in my schedule so I have face time all over the plant, and it’s not just in one place.”

Contact Tim Hennagir at [email protected]