Weather Forecast


Year in review: Prairie Island plant looks ahead to improvements

While Xcel Energy had its share of issues at the Prairie Island nuclear plant in 2012, the utility will move forward on new investments in the facility in the coming years.

Nuclear plant upgrades are planned to start in 2013. There are investments and improvements done at the facilities every year, Xcel officials said, but as the plant ages a set of improvements has been grouped together to take place over the next few years.

Those include steam generators for Unit 2, high-pressure turbines, dry-cask storage upgrades and other work at the plant.

The company will move forward with the improvements even though it decided earlier this year not to go ahead with a power uprate that would have increased the generating capacity of its reactors.

"Even with the decision not to go forward with the extended power uprate, these actions will be taken," Terry Pickens, director of nuclear regulatory policy for Xcel, told attendees at a November meeting of Xcel representatives and Red Wing City Council members. If the uprate occurred, the work would just be done to a greater extent, he said.

Work will start with replacing the steam generators for Unit 2 during the planned 2013 autumn fuel outage.

Xcel started questioning the uprate last spring and in October told the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission that the uprate is "not in our customers' best interest."

The plant started using wider fuel rods in 2009 in preparation for the power increase, and now that extra fuel will simply last longer, cutting down unit refueling outages to every 20 to 23 months instead of the previous 18 to 20 months. More sensitive equipment also will make operations more efficient, officials said.

The improvements, paired with a levy increase, also will send more tax money to local government. The city of Red Wing has included this in a long-term plan to tackle a backlog of infrastructure maintenance and repairs.

A set of incidents

While Xcel is hoping to kick off next year with improvements and work at the Prairie Island plant, 2012 did not start quite as well.

The company issued an alert for the plant in early January after a bleach leak. An alert is the second lowest of four emergency classifications established by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, but still one of the highest seen in Minnesota.

That was the highest profile incident at the plant in 2012, but Prairie Island also faced:

• A short-lived "notification of unusual event" in March, triggered by an indication that there was a decrease in water levels in the reactor coolant system in Unit 2. Further investigation revealed that there was no leak.

• A shutdown of Unit 1 in August after operators declared after routine testing its two backup generators had exhaust leaks and were inoperable.

• Another unusual event notification Oct. 31 due to a temporary failure of some security equipment.

There was no threat to public or staff safety in these incidents, officials said.

Other issues

On Feb. 3, 27 gallons of water from a heating system overflowed a holding tank, and Xcel officials said nearly 4,000 gallons of water containing small amounts of tritium and trace amounts of other chemicals had been released from the plant since November 2011. The situation posed no threat, Xcel officials said then.

In mid-February the company was cited by the NRC for a security issue at the plant. It was a finding of low to moderate significance, or "greater than green" on the NRC's scale running from green to red. Most details were not released because it was security related. The problem was addressed and corrected, the NRC said.

Changes in leadership

The site also cycled through a handful of site vice presidents.

Jim Molden took over for Mark Schimmel in early June, but stepped down in September. Joel Sorensen, vice president of nuclear operations support at Xcel, served as acting site vice president until Jim Lynch, vice president of assistance for the Institute of Nuclear Power Operations, was named in October. Lynch will be there one to two years while Xcel searches for a more permanent person to fill the spot.

Danielle Killey

Danielle Killey covers local government for the South Washington County Bulletin. She has worked as a reporter for other Forum Communications newspapers since 2011. She graduated from the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities with a journalism degree.

(651) 459-4629