Xcel Energy, employees celebrate 45 years at Monticello nuclear plant

Employees at the Monticello Nuclear Generating Plant celebrated an important industry milestone last week with plenty of commemorative cake.

Xcel Energy marked the 45th anniversary date of commercial operations at the plant June 30 by serving up 14 half-sheet cakes in three flavors that were created by Blue Egg Bakery in Elk River, said Communications Consultant Margaret Church.

“We couldn’t bring in full sheets because they were too heavy and would crack.” The celebration also included a banner signing; individual employees inscribe their power-production monikers with the year they started working at the plant, Church said. “We had a really nice event,” she said. “It was wonderful to hear all of the stories people shared about their years here.”

Forty-five years ago this November, the community of Monticello used another cake-related event to welcome then Northern States Power Co. (NSP) to the community.

During the Nov. 7 , 1971, event, a large sheet cake in the shape of the Monticello plant by local bakers Ken and Betty Tvedt was presented to utility company representatives.

The cake’s included a frosted replica of the tall stack that’s used to exhaust gases from the offgas system, which controls discharges from the plant’s air ejector system.

In a story published in the July 12, 2001, edition of the Monticello Times, reporter Rachel Nicholas provided a look back at the plant’s early years.

When Northern States Power (NSP) officials initiated plans in 1966 to build a nuclear power plant near the Mississippi River town of Monticello, the effects of its potential ricochetted for miles around.

“The magnitude of NSP’s venture-and its anticipated impact on this comparatively small town-is truly staggering,” also read a front-page editorial in the April 14, 1966, edition of the Monticello Times.

“The continued growth and development over the years of Monticello and this near-to-the-metropolis area seem virtually assured,” the editorial stated.

Those preparing for the institution of the second NSP nuclear plant (now owned by Xcel Energy) in the United States (the company’s first was in Sioux Falls, South Dakota) could only imagine the impact NSP would have on Monticello’s life in the years to come.

Tack on 15 years to Nicholas’ 30-year recap of Monticello nuclear and little has changed.

“The [nuclear plant] has definitely been an asset to this town,” said Rob Rohland, a long-time plant employee who was quoted in Nicholas’s story. Additional news that Monticello would become a nuclear power in the energy-producing world broke in August 1966 when additional plans regarding excavation on the 1,400 acre site were announced.

On Sept. 19, 1966, construction by General Electric Co. on the $80 million nuclear power plant began with a groundbreaking ceremony that lifted the dirt and raised the NSP corporate flag over land three miles northwest of Monticello.

By November 1967, progress toward completion of the project remained on schedule for a May 1970 deadline with buildings becoming enclosed and reactor sections arriving, including the first-ever reactor containment shell being built on a plant site.

Approximately 525 works spent hour after hour constructing the plant, which would become one of five nuclear plants built that year. Just over four years later, the plant was ready to sustain its first chain reaction. It occurred at 9”49 a.m. Dec. 10, 1970, and was a success.

Three more months of anticipation went by before Monticello’s NSP plant revved up again and began generating electricity at 2:30 a.m. Saturday, March 6, 1971, with 74 employees in tow. “It was exciting times,” said Rohland, who joined the NSP team in November 1968 in radioactive waste processing.

By June 30, the 570-megawatt plant began producing electricity commercially to 570,000 homes. “The community definitely supported us,” said Rohland, remembering the initial community reaction to the plant and its operation.

The Monticello Times published a 16-page special section about the plant on July 11, 1991, entitled, “Nuclear Power in Monticello: 20 Years of Electrical Generation.”

That section contained the above history dating back to NSP’s announcement in 1996, interviews with plant personnel and reports about nuclear-related issues.

When NSP began plans for the 20-year anniversary of the Monticello plant, the public focus was on the anniversary of commercial generation.

That came on June 30, 1971, stated an article in the 1991 special section. But in the memory of former plant manager Chuck Larson, the day of “initial criticality” was more memorable.

When the time of the first nuclear chain reaction came on Dec. 10, 1970, “that was the significant day,” Larson said. “I remember it was a long day getting to that point,” Larson said.

Plant operator Julius Carstens initiated the first nuclear reaction, according to the Monticello Messenger, an in-house publication for the plant.

An equally significant milestone occurred on March 4, 1971, Larson said, when three turbines were spun up for the first time and operated.

Within days enough steam was being generated to drive the turbines and produce the plant’s power. In the spring of 1971, Larson said the plant’s operation gradually reached 25, 50 and 75 percent capacities.

A 100 percent rating was certified, Larson said,, only after 100 hours of commercial operation.

A Monticello Times Opinion Page Viewpoint published on July 11, 1991, explained the symbiotic relationship that developed between NSP and Monticello.

The utility and the community became partners in progress long before the first nuclear reaction occurred in December 1970.

“Monticello, for NSP, was the utility’s first commitment to a commercial nuclear power station,” the Viewpoint stated. “NSP, for Monticello, made us the site of significant technological advancement. We proclaimed ourselves a century-only city with a nuclear-age viewpoint.”

In the construction years and throughout the plant’s operating history, Monticello supported NSP and later, Xcel Energy.

“Local citizens, when the atomic energy industry had its setbacks or in the face of environmental opposition, became defenders of its nuclear neighbor on the banks of the Mississippi,” the Viewpoint continued, adding: “That support goes far beyond the plant itself and the millions of tax dollars generated for our local governments. The people of NSP’s Monticello operations are active participants in community organizations. They also join our churches, play on softball teams, have children in the band, [and] socialize with their neighbors.”

In another story published in the 20th anniversary special section, former Monticello Mayor Con Johnson said that the plant provided an influx of talented, civic-minded people and started a growth pattern for the city.

When Monticelloans learned that a plant was going to be built, Johnson said, “There were no objections from anyone. It was all pluses.”

Former Monticello Times Publisher Lynn Smith concurred. With a group of news people and NSP officials, he visited the Dresden nuclear power plant in Morris, Illinois, in May 1966.

“It was my first time seeing a nuclear plant,” Smith said. “It was impressive.” The dynamic combination of the power plant and Interstate 94 coming to Monticello in those years “really brought a boom to Monticello,” Smith said. “The plant gave us the tax base and the interstate brought people to and from the community.”

Bill Hill joined NSP in 1968 as a member of the Monticello Nuclear Generating Plant start-up staff. He retired in 2001.

In a Monticello Times Community Perspectives column, Hill said the plant was a great place to work with a strong team, challenging work and opportunities to learn and grow.

“Over the years, we established a reputation in the nuclear industry a top performance plant in terms of safety and production,” Hill wrote. “But incidents at Three Mile Island and Chernobyl created a wave of anti-nuclear sentiment that dampened public support for our industry. Yet the Monticello community remained upbeat about nuclear energy and maintained trust and confidence in our operation.”

That confidence was shared by Monticello’s community newspaper. A Times’ Opinion Page Viewpoint published July 19, 2001, as part of the 30th anniversary coverage stated, “Never again would our landscape, or our community, be the same after the plant and freeway opened in the early 1970s. Its part of the fabric of business life here. We have pride it in its track record-and we’re likely to support an application for extension of the plant’s license beyond the 2010 expiration.”

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) approved a renewed license for Monticello in 2006, extending its operating life until 2030.

In January 2009, the commission approved Xcel Energy’s application to implement an extended power uprate. Utilities have been using power uprates since the 1970s to increase output of nuclear plants. According the NRC, components such as pipes, valves, pumps, heat exchangers, electrical transformers and generators, must be able to accommodate the conditions that exist at the higher power level.

Higher power involves increased steam and water flow through the systems used in converting thermal power into electric power.

Uprate work focuses on taking the nuclear plant’s turbines, generator, feedwater heaters and other balance of plant equipment and improving them.

However, upgrades to Monticello Nuclear Generating Plant were expensive and took longer than anticipated. Xcel Energy admitted in an October 2013 filing with state regulators.

Information submitted to the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission reported an initial cost estimate of $320 million to replace the plant’s electrical distribution system, transformers, reactor feed pumps and motors, feedwater heaters and condensate pumps, motors and other equipment.

That figure ballooned to $655 million when the life-cycle management and extended power uprate project to increase plant capacity was completed.

According to Xcel, the overall project required replacing hundreds of pieces of equipment within the plant’s small footprint and the efforts of thousands of workers during three different implementation outages.

“While our costs were substantially higher than initially anticipated, this was primarily due to necessary changes in scope and design to meet our goals regulatory requirements and actual installation costs, which turned out to be much higher than we predicted and delays and added costs in our federal licensing effort,” Xcel stated in a 24-page report.

Installation of the modifications was more difficult and expensive than the utility foresaw in its original planning for the first major construction program to occur at the Monticello nuclear plant since its opening.

Because Minnesota legislation from the early-1990s effectively precluded Xcel from renewing its operating license, the company did not expect plant operations beyond 2010.

According to the October 2013 report, Xcel deferred major capital projects and upgrades and focused only on those repairs necessary for the plant to operate safely through retirement in 2010.

However, in 2003, a new Minnesota law made it possible for Xcel Energy to seek a 20-year operating license extension, and in 2006, Xcel Energy obtained state and federal permits needed to continue operations at the Monticello Nuclear Generating Plant until 2030.

“It turned out that this 40-year-old plant had more systems that needed replacement than we anticipated when we began the process of obtaining authorization to renew its license in 2005,” Xcel officials stated. Therefore, as part of the present uprating initiative, Xcel ended up replacing more systems than planned.

Xcel also stated: “Had we decided not to undertake all of the projects we did as part of this initiative, we would have had to shut Monticello down prematurely.”

For example, when Xcel decided to replace the plant’s entire condensate demineralizer system, the company found replacing the vessels required work in vaults that were extremely confined and radioactive, the report stated.

The original 1960s-vintage vessels had been installed first and the walls of the vaults poured around them.

A significant number of additional workers had to rotate in and out of the space and our workers had to wear protective gear and comply with restrictive rules concerning exposure to radiation.

In the end, Xcel estimates that installation of the condensate demineralizer system added $34 million to the cost of the project.

In addition, the original scope of work called for rerating six feedwater heaters and replacing or modifying other related plant equipment.

However, during the design phase, Xcel determined the six feedwater heaters all required replacement and extensive replacement of drain and dump piping.

In total, the added scope related to the feedwater heater system was a “very challenging” job that ultimately resulted in an incremental $64 million of costs, Xcel stated in the October 2013 filing, adding its initial estimate for reactor feed pumps and motors, a major modification, was based on General Electric’s recommendation to add a smaller capacity supplemental reactor feed pump and motor.

However, the company determined that a third pump design was not workable due to size limitations and operating procedures.

According to the report, Xcel elected to replace the existing pumps and motors with larger capacity equipment to support uprated power conditions The increased scope for this modification led to incremental engineering and design, material and other costs estimated at nearly $31 million.

Xcel said it incurred about $45 million in additional installation costs as a result of the issues encountered. Finally, upgrading the plant’s non-safety-related equipment to a new 13.8 kilovolt electrical distribution system and adding more than 14 miles of 5-inch cable throughout the plant added about $73 million in installation costs. the October 2013 report stated.

Productivity was slowed due to the specialized and time-consuming procedures to ensure worker safety in radiological and electrically sensitive areas of the plant, and the NRC’s five-year review of Xcel’s application took much longer and cost double what the company had originally expected, the report also stated.

Xcel said the NRC’s review drove costs up by about $30 million. “The upgrades at Monticello were important to the long- term viability of this generating resource,” the report concluded. “The equipment is functioning properly and we have had very few issues since the unit returned to full power after the outage.”

The recent improvements at the Monticello nuclear plant will help the generating station play an important role in Xcel Energy’s future energy mix, said Site Vice President Pete Gardner during an April Monticello Rotary Club update.

“We have about 670 people working at the plant on a day-to-day basis,” Gardner said. During refueling outages, which occur roughly every two years, Xcel Energy brings a large number of utility industry workers into the community. “Our next refueling outage will be in 2017,” he said. “We replace about a third of the fuel rods in the reactor core every two years. And we do a lot of plant maintenance to ensure we can run for another two years.”

In 2015, Xcel Energy paid $16.5 million in property taxes, Gardner said. The plant provides electricity for 530,000 homes. An extended power uprate (EPU) helped increase the plant’s capacity to 671 megawatts.

“It took us about 10 years to get all of it in place, but basically, what that does for us is create a brand-new plant. We replaced almost the entire secondary side of the power plant to make sure we could operate out to the end of our license, to 2030.”

Gardner said the EPU increased the plant’s electrical power output by 20 percent over the original turnkey design. Moving forward, Xcel Energy wants to have about 63 percent of its energy portfolio classified as carbon-free. “The investments that we’ve made with nuclear continue to support that,” Gardner said.

During each refueling outage, Xcel Energy will continue projects at the plant to improve performance in its investment.

During the April Monticello Rotary Club question-and-answer session, Gardner said Xcel Energy’s additional capital investment in the plant would include upgraded oxygen monitors and enclosure modifications for the plant’s back-up diesel generators.

Regarding dry-cask storage of spent nuclear fuel, Gardner said Xcel Energy remains concerned about failed federal efforts to find a long-term repository for nuclear waste material. “That hasn’t gone very well, and it’s been in litigation for years and years,” he said. “Each of the nation’s nuclear plants has to put a dry-cask storage facility on site, and we did that as well.”

How long can the Monticello Nuclear Generating Plant continue to operate? Gardner addressed that question near the end of his Rotary club presentation.

The Monticello Nuclear Generating Plant is currently in the 40-to 60-year operational range, Gardner said. Getting another 20 years out a plant, and moving to the 60-to 80-year range, is something the industry is just starting to talk about, he said.

“Most of the original design of our nuclear plants in country is 40 years,” he said. “Almost all of the nation’s plants have gone 20 years beyond that.”

According to Gardner, a new nuclear industry study is exploring the possible of running plants like Monticello for two more decades, or 80 years total.

“There will be pilot plants where that [idea] will be explored, and that involves additional design reviews,” he said. “We will be looking at getting Monticello involved with that as well as our Prairie Island units,” he said. “But it’s really early in the process. We will watch other plants first.”

Contact Tim Hennagir at [email protected]