More nuclear plants needed? PDF Print E-mail
Wednesday, 15 August 2007
By T.W. Budig
ECM capitol reporter
Beneath the yellow circle on the floor the fuel of the universe silently roars â€” its power, electric and political, reaching far beyond the banks of the Mississippi River.
Xcel Energyâ€™s Monticello nuclear power plant, located on the Mississippi in the northwest metro, is coming off a good year. Opened in 1971, the plantâ€™s one-unit, 600 megawatt-rated reactor â€” its top marked by the yellow circle within the multi-level containment areaâ€” achieved a 99 percent capacity factor last year.Image
Pictured: A working area above the reactor at Xcel Energy’s Monticello nuclear power plant.
â€œEssentially this plant ran flat out, full power for the entire year of 2006,â€ said Nuclear Management Company (NMC) Monticello Plant Manager Bradley Sawatzke. NMC manages Xcelâ€™s nuclear power plants.
â€œIt was a record year for us,â€ he said.
Sawatzke, 48, a graduate of Monticello High School, began work at Monticello in maintenance. One Xcel official quipped you can eat an egg off that plant floor, and Sawatzke speaks of cleanliness setting the right tone â€” eventually becoming a licensed reactor operator and plant manager.
â€œI think I have a unique perspective,â€ he said. â€œThe community was always pretty welcoming of it (the plant). They saw it as an opportunity for jobs and a tax base to help with the city. I live one mile away. So that tells you all you need to know about my belief (about plant safety). I have raised my family a mile away from the plant.â€
Moving from Point A to Point B within the plant involves constant scrutiny, measured steps. Leaving the reactor area requires stepping through a radiation screening device â€” a female-sounding voice counts down during the sweeps. Employees wear radiation monitors. Footprints on the floor of one corridor beckons pedestrians away from exposed pipes on a nearby wall to minutely reduce their radiation exposure.
Even the choice of a pair of slacks can be meaningful. Sawatzke cautioned one employee their polyester slacks could set off detectors because the fabric picks up naturally occurring radon.
Nuclear waste stacking up at plants
Gazing out Sawatzkeâ€™s office window at the plant a visitor can see the pad that one day will hold dry casks filled with radioactive waste culled from the reactor. Monticello, like all U.S. nuclear plants, currently stores its nuclear waste on site. There is no national collection system.
The last shipment of waste out the plant, Sawatzke explained, was 20 years ago when it was shipped by rail to processing facility in Illinois. Currently, the waste is amassing in a pool.
â€œItâ€™s not completely full yet,â€ Sawatzke said. â€œIt will be after another refueling cycle or two if we donâ€™t get this done.â€
Monticello refuels on a 24-month cycle. That involves changing a quarter of the 12-foot long fuel-bundles in the reactor â€” thereâ€™s 484 of them total. Monticello plans a â€œloading campaignâ€ with the dry casks next summer.
Casks will be brought into the reactor facility on a railroad car and hoisted to the top of the reactor. There the casks will be lowered into the pool. The exchange of old fuel into the casks will be done underwater. Once filled, the cask will then be lowered back onto the railroad car and rolled outside for storage in a concrete bunker on the pad.
Across America last year, some 830 casks sat on pads at nuclear power plants, according to the Nuclear Energy Institute (NEI), the industryâ€™s chief lobbyist.
Over 161 million people in America reside within 75 miles of temporarily-stored nuclear waste, according to the U.S. Department of Energy.
â€œThe way the cask system is set up we could probably operate until the end of the our license, which is in 2030,â€ said Sawatzke. â€œWeâ€™re not counting on that. Our expectations are Yucca Mountain (the national nuclear waste depository site in Nevada) is going to be finalized, approximately the year 2015, 2016 â€“ somewhere in there. So they can take that fuel.â€
Monticello is older than Xcelâ€™s other Minnesota nuclear power plant at Prairie Island, whose two nuclear reactors came online in 1973 and 1974, respectively. The power generated from the three reactors is significant. It provides about 30 percent of the power mix in Xcelâ€™s northern statesâ€™ power region.
Tight security, as expected
World events have complicated and perhaps brightened things for the nuclear power industry. The World Trade Center attack raised the specter of terrorists storming the nationâ€™s more than 100 nuclear power plants. NMC officials are tight lipped about plant security; guards with military-style weapons slung over their shoulders are commonly seen at Monticello. Detectors check for explosives.
Specialists at check points peer from behind thick glass panels as if up from the depths of a pond. An employee escorting a visitor must keep the visitor in sight at all times. A sign at the plant entrance basically tell visitors without prior authorization to visit to go away.
Although Sawatzke wonâ€™t talk about security, he grabbed a marker and drew a picture to illustrate what happened last January to cause an automatic plant shutdown at Monticello. The incident caught media attention.
Two welds cracked on an I-beam that supports steam lines to the turbine (the turbine generates the electricity with the steam created from the heat from the reactor). The I-beam, explained Sawatzke, only lowered about six inches.
But it was enough for sensor to detect a change in steam pressure, triggering the shutdown. Things were not falling off walls, Sawatzke insisted.
â€œThis whole thing about it fell, it crashed â€” this I-beam moved about six inches,â€ he said.
The weld dated to the original construction of the plant. The January shutdown was the first automatic shutdown at Monticello in five years, explained Sawatzke.
â€œThatâ€™s very, very good performance,â€ he said.
Monticello has been online for 36 years, and itâ€™s certainly not new.
â€œBy nuclear standards, quite honestly, itâ€™s one of the older ones,â€ said Sawatzke regarding the age of the plant. â€œWe havenâ€™t built a new plant (in America) in years and years. Theyâ€™re all old.â€
Sawatzke is upbeat about the future of nuclear power in America. Industry officials have spoken of a nuclear renaissance. Nuclear power plants donâ€™t produce greenhouse gasses. They donâ€™t burn anything. The energy is derived from splitting atoms.
â€œI really think that will help people see the benefits of nuclear power,â€ said Sawatzke.
Could Minnesota see a third nuclear power plant someday?
The state currently has a moratorium against nuclear power plant construction. Xcel Energy currently is not in the market for a new nuclear plant any time soon.
â€œWe do not have a pressing need right now in our northern service territory to add additional power,â€ said Charlie Bomberger, Xcel Energyâ€™s general manager of nuclear assets. â€œSo the prospects of new nuclear is not first and foremost on our minds.â€
Instead, Excelâ€™s focus has been on getting Monticello and Prairie Island relicensed. The company has been pursuing a long-term plan for the two plants, one estimated to cost about $1 billion, explained Bomberger.
â€œWe will monitor whatâ€™s going on in the industry,â€ he said.
And the moratorium?
â€œWell, thatâ€™s beyond where we are right now,â€ said Bomberger.
Sawatzke believes itâ€™s possible some day Minnesota could have another nuclear power plant.
â€œ(But) the first new nuclear plant in the country will not be here,â€ he said. â€œI can assure you of that.â€
Nuclear power has boosters in the Minnesota Legislature, but it also has its critics.
Rep. Jean Wagenius, DFL-Minneapolis, House Environment and Natural Resources Finances Chair, opined that lawmakers have already decided to focus on â€œhomegrown Minnesota energy,â€ such as wind.
Sen. John Marty, DFL-Roseville, former Senate Environment and Natural Resources Committee Chair, said the problem of nuclear waste â€” the problem of nuclear proliferation â€” has never been solved. Nuclear waste remains dangerous for thousands of years, he explained. Looking backward historically, that radioactive time line would go back to the Age of the Pharaohs, he said.
â€œI think that would be very unlikely to happen,â€ Marty said of lawmakers lifting the moratorium. â€œCertainly, thatâ€™s a very uphill fight.â€