NRC inspectors provide glimpse inside Prairie Island plantPaul Zurawski and Karla Stoedter are NRC inspectors at Prairie Island nuclear power plant. They're are charged with over seeing the entire plant and ensuring all operations meet government regulations.
By: Jon Swedien - Red Wing Republican-Eagle, Pierce County Herald
RED WING -- In the basement of the Prairie Island nuclear plant's turbine building something smells fishy.
"This is a smell that's unique to an outage time," says Paul Zurawski, a resident Nuclear Regulatory Commission inspector.
The smell comes from river water, he explains, noting that during the current refueling outage at the plant large pipes that haul in water from the Mississippi have been opened for maintenance.
Zurawski along with Karla Stoedter, the senior NRC inspector at Prairie Island, are charged with over seeing the entire plant and ensuring all operations meet government regulations.
To that end, every workday they sit in on meetings with officials from Xcel Energy, check plant logbooks, review countless documents, oversee operations big and small, and watch hours of videotape documenting plant activities.
"We're always in this mode of validating that things meet requirements," Stoedter said.
You might expect Zurawski and Stoedter's eyes would be bloodshot. They're not, despite logging 1,700 inspection hours a year. And that does not include the time they spend working during outages like the one occurring right now at Prairie Island.
The NRC recently invited the R-E on a tour of the nuclear plant with Stoedter and Zurawski acting as guides as they made their rounds.
A hectic time
Outages are a time of heightened activity at the plant.
During outages the utility refuels one of its two nuclear reactors, replacing spent fuel rods with new ones. Used rods are placed in cooling pools for a time before they're moved to storage casks. Outages last several weeks.
Meanwhile, other parts of the plant are inspected and receive maintenance work.
Outages present workers - some of them foreign to the plant - with different challenges from those they normally face. Outages also present special challenges for NRC inspectors, who must scrutinize all the different activities.
"For us it definitely escalates" the workload, Stoedter said, "and for the whole NRC, too."
Zurawski said at times outages can seem chaotic, but they are in fact highly organized, as mandated by regulations.
"It might not look like it to the untrained eye, but it is," Zurawski said.
Stoedter and Zurawski are on hand at the plant to witness major events such as the removal and installation of fuel rods.
They also spend time every day inside the plant's main control room -- its pale green walls are filled with lights and panels that indicate what's happening in different parts of the plant - where they review what's going on with Xcel officials who run the plant.
Another primary area of interest is the plant's backup generators. These huge engines stand ready to provide energy if outside power is lost. There are also backups to these backup systems.
The same is true of the equipment that brings river water into the plant, which is a main component to the nuclear operation. The water is a coolant.
What may seem like small details are also of concern.
For example, as she walks through the plant, Stoedter checks to make sure scaffolding isn't positioned so it would interfere with sprinkler systems in the event of a fire.
Describing an inspector's job, NRC public Affairs officer Prema Chandrathil said, "It's a lot of knowing what's going on with the plant, knowing what's going on with NRC regulations and keeping safety in the forefront."
On site and nearby
The NRC has its own office at the plant.
"It's kind of like its own little embassy," Chandrathil said.
In fact, the NRC has resident inspectors at all of the nation's nuclear power plants - a requirement borne out of the emergency incident at Three Mile Island nuclear plant in 1979, Stoedter said.
Stoedter has been an on-site inspector since 1995. For the past two years she has been at Prairie Island, the third nuclear plant at which she's worked.
Resident inspectors are required to switch plants every seven years in order to prevent complacency, Chandrathil said.
"We don't want people getting too comfortable," she said.
Zurawski, who has spent three years at Prairie Island, is on his first assignment with the NRC. Before joining the agency Zurawski worked in the private sector at nuclear power plants for 23 years.
Both Stoedter and Zurawski live within 10 miles of the plant, which is probably necessary given they sometimes need to be at the plant at odd hours to oversee critical operations, especially during an outage.
"Pretty much, their lives are put on hold during the outage," Chandrathil said.