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Nuclear plant inspector motivated by service to community

Resident Inspector Luke Haeg checks the status of the control room— the brain of Prairie Island nuclear plant. (photo by Maureen McMullen)

Luke Haeg, Resident InspectorGrowing up in Rosemount, Minnesota, Luke Haeg didn't realize he lived within 30 miles of a nuclear generating plant. Today, his comprehension of nuclear power generation encompasses nearly every aspect of operations at the Prairie Island nuclear plant, where he serves as senior resident inspector for the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

As resident inspector, Haeg works as the eyes and ears for the NRC to ensure Xcel Energy meets federal nuclear requirements. He uses his extensive mechanical knowledge and meticulous attention to detail on a daily basis to make sure everything is up to standard, from security concerns such as a plane flying overhead all the way down to the fixtures holding up fire sprinkler system pipes.

The expertise and responsibilities mean that the Red Wing resident is on call around the clock every day of the week. His most recent after-hours response to the plant was in August, when a valve on a piping system that pumps clean water to one of two reactors closed unexpectedly a little after midnight.

Haeg ultimately deemed the incident an "unusual event," the lowest of NRC emergency classifications, but his late-night trip to the plant ended up lasting about three hours.

Although the demanding nature of his job, both on and off the clock, embodies more of a lifestyle than a job, Haeg said he finds satisfaction in his task of keeping the community safe from nuclear-related dangers.

He credits his commitment to public safety to his father, who served as fire chief and an emergency medical technician for Rosemount Fire Department.

"I was really inspired growing up with his act of public service, helping others and putting others before himself," Haeg said. "He wasn't home a lot because he was out on fire or rescue calls, but the ability to help people like that was really inspirational to me."

As Haeg prepared to graduate college with a degree in mechanical engineering, the opportunity came to combine his interest in public service with his mechanical prowess at an engineering conference, where he left a resumé with NRC representatives.

He then completed a two-year professional development program with the commission to master the ins and outs of how nuclear technology works and how the federal government regulates it.

"It kind of sets you up for that on the technical side," Haeg said. "But then also with our role as regulators, we have to have many other skills beyond just being able to do an engineering calculation. We have to be able to look at many aspects of how the plant operates, how they're performing, we have to learn about the regulatory requirements, the emergency response requirements we have."

The nuclear regulations Haeg had to memorize fill two thick books — and for good reason. Among the criteria NRC evaluates is the plant's performance during emergency drills, which nuclear plants are required to carry out with local law enforcement several times per year.

"The drills involve an accident scenario of something happening all the way up to a release of radiation," said NRC Senior Public Affairs Officer Viktoria Mitlyng. "So, they practice the coordination and the response to that event, like what could actually be done to protect the public to the best ability of the plant and all the agencies."

Haeg checks the label on a valve of a backup diesel generator at the Prairie Island nuclear plant. (photo by Maureen McMullen)

Never bored

Haeg usually arrives for work early in the morning in time for Xcel employees to change shifts. He starts his shift by reading the plant status report, which details operations, maintenance and any testing from the previous day.

A control room log indicates any alarms or deficiencies from the previous day, which he would then enter into a site-wide computer system that tracks corrective actions for anything the NRC identifies as a security risk.

By 8 a.m., Haeg meets with Xcel staff to go over schedules and resolutions to issues from the previous days. He follows up these meetings with a phone call to the NRC regional chief and relays the info reviewed at the meeting. He compiles this information into a quarterly inspector's report, which is available online at bit.ly/2cFCBCB.

From there, Haeg develops a schedule for the rest of his day. During his surveys of the plant, he makes sure to communicate with personnel to hone in on areas that might demand his attention that day.

He also relies on his sense to detect issues: Is there an unusual odor? Does something look off? Does the temperature in a particular part of the plan feel hotter than usual?

"Rarely are we bored and looking for something to do," he said. "We have so much flexibility in our inspection procedures and we never look at the same thing twice in a short period of time. We want to be smart about how we sample and perform our inspections."

Small sacrifices

Although he interacts with licensees on a daily basis, Haeg is employed by the NRC, a government entity completely independent of utility companies.

His regulative authority requires him to maintain public trust of the his department's ability to regulate the plant objectively. This means establishing a rapport with licensees that's strictly professional — not social.

"Regardless of if it's a truly professional thing, we operate on the perception that the public, or someone might think, 'I've met him before, he's supposed to be inspecting Prairie Island and he's joking with the plant manager,'" Haeg said. "We have to be really separate and independent of them."

In a small town such as Red Wing, it can be a challenge to separate his work and social life.

"At the more rural plants where there's not as much populous around," he said, "you have to be mindful of situations like your friend might not work at the plant, but his wife does."

NRC resident inspectors' obligations also require them to relocate every seven years to prevent them from getting "too cozy" at a specific site.

"They're assessing our independence and objectivity," Haeg said. "It can be challenging for us sometimes, but I think it can be very important."

The demands of Haeg's position can create a challenging social life and cut into time with his family, but the father of two said his role in the safety of his community justifies the "small sacrifices" he and his family make.

"I think the benefit outweighs the sacrifices (my family) has to make," Haeg said. "It's a rewarding job to have. When I retire someday, it won't be that I've worked there for 40 years; it will be that I've had 40 years of public service."

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