A maintenance and refueling shutdown at Iowa's only nuclear plant has an economic impact on the Cedar Rapids area that's bigger than most large conventions.
NextEra Energy is nearly one week into a refueling outage that could last more than a month. After 415 days of continuous operation, the shutdown gives the plant's operators times to refuel, check for maintenance needs, test and improve the plant.
It's a big production that swells the number of workers at the Palo plant from its permanent staff of just more than 600 to more than 1,400 workers.
Replacing 40 percent of the plant's nuclear fuel and scheduled maintenance will cost more than $34 million. Two major maintenance projects during the shutdown — recoating the massive doughnut-shaped torus at the base of the reactor for corrosion protection, and rewinding the coils of the plant's massive generator — will cost about $12 million apiece.
Most of the expenses will be inside the plant, but just the living and personal spending by employees coming to the area for the project has been estimated at $4.8 million.
The figure was prepared by the Cedar Rapids Area Convention and Visitors Bureau and is based on 1,000 workers spending $61 per day over a 30-day period.
The bureau's marketing director, Jennifer Pickar, said it’s clear that workers coming in for the Duane Arnold project are getting out into the community and spending money.
“A lot of these workers are stopping in here, interested in what there is to see and do while they’re in Cedar Rapids,” Pickar said. “They are out and about in the community, even though they blend in.”
The huge maintenance and refueling projects occur every two years on average at Iowa's only nuclear plant, but could never be called "routine" because they are so huge and each step is so critical. The company does its best not to reveal when the projects will begin or end because it would affect the wholesale price of electricity in the region.
With the nuclear power industry expanding in the United States for the first time in decades, and memories of Japan's Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant accident of March 2011 fresh in the public consciousness, plant operators are more interested in discussing how they keep the facility safe.
"It's not just a matter of how the plant will run over the next month or year," said Rich Anderson, site vice president of Duane Arnold Energy Center for NextEra Energy, the plant's majority owner and operator. "You really have to be focused on the long-term safety and reliability of every part of the plant."
Anderson said the work is so critical that NextEra really tries to engage the hearts and minds of project participants. The project begins with a big pancake breakfast for everybody, and the critical skills of every single "contractor" to work on-site are validated in a formal process that can include requiring them to demonstrate certain tasks.
Once the qualifications of workers are assured, the "contractors" must still undergo from one to three days of formal orientation and training in nuclear power, called Nantel training.
The work goes on around the clock. The outage not only opens up the reactor but literally turns many components such as pumps and motors inside out to check critical bearings, add lubrication, and repair worn parts.
Weld seams are tested with ultrasonic equipment, and electrical connections are examined. The project even will dig up some underground water pipes around the plant to check for corrosion.
Many kinds of maintenance can't be performed on equipment because radiation levels are too high in the nuclear containment area, or because systems are hot and pressurized with steam or water, Anderson said.
The specialized nature of the project brings in workers from far and wide — from engineers to carpenters. They include a Westinghouse crew that comes all the way from Pennsylvania to disassemble the reactor vessel and move the nuclear fuel.
The project puts about 150 members of Plumbers and Pipefitters Local 125 to work, and brings in about 15 more union plumbers from as far away as New York, a union representative said.
Other union trades also send workers, Anderson said, with a large number of extras called in from Chicago-area unions when local union halls don't have enough workers to send.
The work is unrelated to a review the plant is undergoing in response to issues raised at a similar nuclear reactor in Japan, Anderson said.
It also comes after a recent "fuel campaign" to move spent fuel rods from a cooling pool inside the plant to a secure dry cask storage area on the plant grounds. That project opened up space in the cooling pool that will be used to take in fuel rods from the current refueling project.
The nuclear plant has a generation capacity of 615 megawatts, enough to power the equivalent of 600,000 average homes. The last maintenance shutdown, which ended Dec. 9, 2010, was brought about when the Cedar River shifted and brought sand into the plant's water intake.
But the plant operated admirably through last summer's record heat and drought that drastically curtailed water levels in the river.
NextEra Energy sends three staff members from its Florida headquarters just to monitor management of the maintenance and refueling project.
"In this industry, the pressure's always on to do it right the first time," said Anderson, who started at Duane Arnold 35 years ago as a mechanic and has been in management at other nuclear plants in Pennsylvania, Ohio and Florida.
Anderson said NextEra does what it can to engage the hearts and minds of the people working the outage. With so many workers performing complex, precise and difficult work, he says the project demands more than able bodies.NextEra offers a few little extras, such as a temporary on-site cafeteria operated by Hy-Vee deli, and sets out boxes of fruit for snacking.