Nuclear power plant gets life extension

MONTICELLO, Minn. -- When Xcel's nuclear power plant at Monticello first started cranking out electricity, "The French Connection" was the latest hit movie, and an obscure firm named Intel was introducing the world to something called the micropr...

MONTICELLO, Minn. -- When Xcel's nuclear power plant at Monticello first started cranking out electricity, "The French Connection" was the latest hit movie, and an obscure firm named Intel was introducing the world to something called the microprocessor. Thirty-five years later, the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission has given the go-ahead for the plant to continue operating for another quarter-century -- well beyond the previous 2010 expiration date.

Xcel officials say the plant has proved its durability.

"We've got sufficient programs to manage the active components at the plant -- the valves, the pumps, the switches. Prior to them wearing out, we replace them," said Charles Bomberger, Xcel's general manager for nuclear asset management.

Nevertheless, Xcel and other utilities are entering the unknown in extending the lives of their nuclear plants well into the 21st century. That they are doing so says much about the alternatives, which in many cases are either nonexistent or unattractive.

Nuclear plants provide24 percent of the electricity generated in Minnesota, and energy appetites continue to grow. Meanwhile, new reactors are barred by the Legislature. Alternative sources of electricity that can be made available 24 hours a day are more expensive and create greenhouse gases and other pollutants. The average cost of producing a kilowatt hour of electricity at the end of 2005 was 1.72 cents for nuclear reactors, 2.21 cents for coal-fired plants, 7.5 cents fornatural-gas-fired generators and 8.1 cents for oil, according to the Nuclear Energy Institute.


Nuclear power represented about 19 percent of all electricity generated nationwide in 2005, and the trade group estimates that replacing that electricity with power from fossil fuels would have added3.3 million short tons of sulfur dioxide, more than 1 million short tons of nitrogen oxide and 682 million metric tons of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere.

Xcel estimates that keeping its nuclear reactors running will save its customers at least $1 billion -- and spare the environment tons of pollution -- compared with using plants burning coal or natural gas.

The company is planning to extend the Monticello model to its two reactors at Prairie Island, which began operating in Red Wing, Minn., in 1974. The company is in the early stages of making the case to renew their licenses, which expire in 2013 and 2014.

The Monticello plant, all but hidden from the road by stands of pine trees, is visible from a distance only because of the telltale white plumes of steam rising from its cooling towers.

Up close, the other detail that gives away the fact that they're not making cheese or toasters inside the windowless monolith are the legions of guards, some carrying sidearms, others machine guns.

Inside, one has the feeling of being below decks on a Navy vessel. The pristine walls, pipes and machinery are patrolled by technicians outfitted with hard hats, protective glasses, earplugs and clipboards. The place bristles with electronic monitors measuring all manner of performance yardsticks and workers busily keeping watch for the monitor, dial or valve giving a reading that might indicate trouble with the reactor or the screaming turbines that draw their power from it.

The plant has gone 700 days without a shutdown of any kind -- a spell of uninterrupted performance unmatched in its record -- and won't power down for routine maintenance until sometime next year.

Routine maintenance, in this case, involves replacing million-dollar transformers that link the plant to power lines, stringing thousands of feet of new cable and testing hundreds of operating and safety systems.


"It's not like we've gone25 years without doing anything to upgrade," said Bradley Sawatzke, Xcel's Monticello plant manager.

In 2004, Xcel estimated the present-value cost of turning to coal-fed power plants to replace the Monticello reactor would range from about$900 million to more than$3 billion over two decades.

Building a nuclear plant to succeed Monticello is, at the moment, impossible. In the mid-1990s, the Legislature barred new atomic reactors. Even if lawmakers reversed course, Xcel would be hard pressed to have a new reactor ready before Monticello's current license expires in 2010.

"The license would run out several years before we would be able to get a new plant built," said Betsy Engelking, Xcel resource planning and bidding manager.

Given the circumstances, Xcel decided adding to the current plant's life span was the best option.

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