U.S. Navy veterans have critical role at Monticello nuclear plant

The current roster of U.S. Navy veterans who operate and maintain the Monticello Nuclear Generating Plant represent a valuable, proven workforce commodity.

Those who aren’t sold on that operational concept would learn a lot after a conversation with Thomas Shortell, training manager at Xcel Energy’s Monticello Nuclear Generating Plant.

Shortell has 22 years of commercial nuclear power experience as a senior reactor operator actively involved with all aspects of licensed operator and technical training as well as nine years of U.S. Navy nuclear power experience as an engineering supervisor and reactor operator.

“When you think about rites of passage and academics, you’ve done it in the military,” Shortell said. “If somebody has made it through the U.S. Navy’s program, I have confidence in their capabilities and their ability to make it through our programs. The service guy have been operating under stressful situations. We have the stress of business and the economics and the business plan of what we do, but when it comes down to it, the guys who have been in service have been operating under circumstances where lives are on the line. You can be 3 feet away from something really, really bad happening,” he added.

Lynae Bleichner, Xcel Energy human resources business consultant, estimates almost 80 veterans work at the plant, about 15 percent of the plant’s 564 employees.

“The kind of submarine service I saw was fast-attack submarines,” Shortell said. “From a mission standpoint, the mission of a fast-attack sub always made sense to me. You are always going, and looking and investigating. If there’s a problem in the world and the U.S. president needed a presence there quickly, a fast-attack would get there. It didn’t matter what the weather was or the distance.”

Shortell served on the USS Batfish (SSN-681). “When I got out of service, that ship was being refueled, it was mothballed, and now it’s been made into razorblades,” he said. “It had a special mission. It was orders of magnitude quieter than any sub out their, ours or there’s. When I say say there’s, I mean Cold War missions. Being a quiet sub, we got to go to very unusual places.”

A lot of the shipmates Shortell served with, others in the nuclear navy, didn’t want to have any part of nuclear power when they got out of the service, he said.

“In my case, I could not see any reason why I would not want to be part of nuclear power,” he said. “The training and experience that we gained in service was directly applicable to the job here in the commercial world.”

According to Shortell, the military service branches, in particular the U.S. Navy, are much more helpful today with helping people find jobs, but then again, the service is quiet different.

“I was totally on my own when it came to finding a job,” he said. “That was during the early 1970s, and there was a lot of new nuclear power plant construction.”

The Three Mile Island nuclear accident in 1979 changed the industry, Shortell said. “I joined the industry in the post-Three Mile Island environment,” he said. “Most of the new construction had stopped. You had a glut of personnel. There were few opportunities during the 1980s. I grabbed a ‘Who’s Who in America’ and looked at nuclear utilities, and wrote letters to site managers. I started writing letters to chief executive officers.”

Shortell said when a civilian nuclear reactor [plant] goes down for an outage, the utility has the business side of the operation down pat.  In the military, going down usually meant a refit, and that could take as long as two years.

“When I look back, the organization of it, we didn’t have it down in the military like we do here,” he said, adding that taking a submarine into the yard was similar in some respects to what occurs with a planned outage at the Monticello nuclear plant. “There’s a lot of around the clock activity and supplemental and contract workers who are there to help. There’s cables and lines everywhere for power and air.”

Shortell said life aboard a U.S Navy nuclear submarine required keen understanding regarding economy and use of space when crew members came aboard.

“The ballistic missile subs were a bit larger, but the fast-attacks were about 30 feet in diameter,” he said. “If you can imaging living in something that’s only 30 feet wide, and then you start adding equipment, quickly, your living space is cut down. I was on patrol once 150 days without coming to the surface. Your  bunk was 6 feet long and about 2 feet wide. You had less than 2 feet above you when it came to the other bunk. Your personal stuff had to fit in a 6 to 8-inch space.”

Shortell said families stayed in touch with those aboard ship via a type of telegram that was limited to 30 words. “During the course of three or four months, a family could send five of those,” he said. “The Navy screened those. They didn’t want people getting bad news while we were underway, at sea.” Shortell said the U.S. Navy and the missions involving its submarines have changed over the years.

“My submarine, when it was initially commissioned, could actually dive deeper than any of the modern boats,” he said. “We could go through the ice. But we perceived a much more urgent mission, the threat of the Soviets and them being able to launch under the ice. There was the perception that the deeper you could go, the safer you would be. The Soviets are no longer the same kind of threat. The threats are different in the world, and with a nuclear sub, you don’t have to worry about loading fuel to get someplace quickly.”

The only real limitation that a nuclear submarine faces is the ability to load food stores for long patrols, Shortell said.

“We would load cases of food to create a temporary floor on the submarine. Well, putting that kind of weight on the submarine affected the ability to maintain depth and trim. Eggs were also interesting. We would not refrigerate the eggs, because they were sprayed with a special coating. After a while, about two months, the cooks might have to break two or three eggs before they would get one that wasn’t rotten. We used irradiated milk that had a long shelf life. The fresh milk and vegetables ran out quickly.”

According to Shortell, today’s nuclear industry would be a vastly different place without the contributions of former U.S. Navy nuclear power personnel. “The U.S. Navy takes a 17-year-old kid fresh out of high school and gives them two or three years of advanced training, then turns over a billion dollars of machinery to them. When you are on watch, you are responsible for the submarine. You learn you are co-dependent on the entire crew aboard a nuclear sub.”

Contact Managing Editor Tim Hennagir at [email protected]