Weather Forecast


Prairie Island nuclear plant gets new vice president

Prairie Island nuclear plant's new site vice president, Jim Molden (left), conducts one of his walkabouts with workers David Anderson and Phil Kramer. Their conversation was taped for a plant video.

Prairie Island nuclear plant's site vice president enjoys his new job. He says so often.

But it also shows in Jim Molden's smile, his interaction with staff and his drive to make the Red Wing station the best.

"Our industry is all about the right grades, the right score," Molden said. "Our goal is to be the benchmark plant of the industry."

The quest began with "Walkabouts with Jim" shortly after his arrival. What he learns and what actions he intends to take appear in employee newsletters.

"When you write something down, people believe you're going to do something about it," he said last week, his ninth on the job.

"It's impromptu. They don't know we're coming," said Deanna Sheely, who accompanies Molden and as plant communications consultant writes the daily and weekly plant reports.

"People have now come up and said, 'When are you going to visit with me?'" he said.

That's the reaction the Navy nuclear submarine veteran and Xcel Energy former vice president of operations wanted.

The plant started an employee engagement committee about a year ago, he noted. When he arrived in June, he called a meeting. Just six people showed up.

Around the same time he and administrative staff saw a video on nuclear plant operations produced by another utility. "Oh, we can do a better job," he recalls agreeing.

The resulting video features plant staff in action. He showed it at an all-hands meeting and also passed out a little card encouraging staff to join him in leading site improvements. More than 30 people signed up.

"What we want to do is inspire people to greatness," Molden said.

Since then the plant has seen three significant dates and results to reinforce his vision:

July 10 -- the Nuclear Regulatory Commission held its biannual emergency response drill. The plant had no findings.

July 23-27 -- The Institute of Nuclear Power Operations conducted its four-year accreditation review. Evaluators found no issues. The plant will go before the review board Nov. 15.

July 25 -- The plant marked a year without an Occupational Safety and Health Administration recordable injury, which for nuclear plants is anything requiring treatment beyond a bandage. This includes injuries to staff, independent contractors, inspectors and visitors.

Plus, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission recently completed a tri-annual five-week fire safety inspection. Again, no findings.

"Our safety rating is the top of the top," he said of Prairie Island. "There are some just as good, but none is better."

Molden, whose specialty is multiple-reactor Westinghouse plants like Prairie Island's, wants benchmark recognition in all performance areas. Those include maintenance, engineering, operations and training.

"That should make a community member feel good about living here," said Pam Gorman of Red Wing, Xcel Energy's community liaison. "Your ultimate responsibility is to ensure the health and safety of our nearest neighbors and the public."

Molden agrees.

"There are two things you worry about running a power plant: Is the equipment running properly or is it challenging the operators? And, are the operators trained well enough to handle an equipment problem?"

He has every confidence in his staff, he said. The focal point in that equation for improvement then is equipment.

On Tuesday, operators put his words into action. They discovered during routine testing that two diesel backup generators had exhaust leaks. They shut down Unit 1, which was operating as designed, so crews could begin repairing the backup generators. One already was repaired by Tuesday night.

"This shutdown stems directly from the strict oversight of the safe operations of the plant and strong maintenance programs to keep the plant running well," Molden said. "Our highly trained operators handled Tuesday's shut down exactly how it should have been handled: safely and efficiently, and exactly as I would expect them to."

Plant officials also promptly contacted the Prairie Island Indian Community to explain what was happening and why.

Tribal Council President Johnny Johnson issued a statement late Tuesday with some of his concerns. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission and Xcel assured leaders there was no health risk, but he called events "ominous reminders" that the plant a half-mile from tribal homes is aging.

Johnson has stressed in the past that the tribe wants the plant's radioactive waste removed to a national repository as dictated by law.

Molden said Xcel understands the tribe's concerns and reassures the public the plant has additional layers of backup protection, including other diesel generators, turbine-driven pumps and portable pumps.

His goal is to bring every aspect of Prairie Island nuclear plant up to the highest standard.

He put it this way last week: "We want to minimize the number of times for what I call 'a shot on goal.' If you know you have an equipment issue, deal with it. It makes everybody sleep at night."

Anne Jacobson

Anne Jacobson has been editor of the Republican Eagle since December 2003. 

(651) 301-7870