The mood of uncertainty three months ago at the Quad-Cities Generating Station has been replaced today by confidence and determination as an additional 1,600 workers are on site for an outage to ensure the nuclear plant's long-term future.
Without the passage of Illinois' new Future Energy Jobs Act late last year, the plant near Cordova, Illinois, now would be performing the final refueling of the Unit 1 reactor and planning for shutdown in 2018. Exelon also had planned to close its Clinton, Illinois, station.
But, instead of planning for its end, the Quad-Cities station has nearly 1,600 supplemental trades workers on site for the next three weeks for a planned refueling and maintenance outage. The contract workers and nuclear staff are completing inspections and making repairs to the reactor — work that cannot be performed when it is in operation — as well as beginning other improvements around the plant. Unit 1 was taken offline early Monday. Unit 2 remains in operation.
"The energy level is a whole different experience," Site Vice President Scott Darin said of the Exelon and contract workers. "We had a workforce that had mentally conditioned itself that this could be the last core of fuel we put in. ... But when it all was reversed, the weight was lifted off their shoulders, and it created a very, very positive excitement."
Outage Manager Randy Early said two years of planning goes into every refueling outage. So, as other plant officials worked the past three years to change the state's energy law, his team was forced to plan every last detail for two scenarios. The worst scenario was the plant's closure and a final refueling, but they also prepared for the expanded scope of work now occurring.
With a closure, the outage would have taken 12 days versus the 19 days it now will last.
"We would have refueled (to last) for one year," Early said, thinking of the confidence his team had in the efforts in Springfield. "So, we kept looking at 'what if it did reverse?' We kept asking what else could we do (accomplish in this outage)."
According to Darin, a shorter, final outage also would have reduced the 1,600 workers who have been brought from the Quad-Cities and beyond down to about 200, all of whom would have been local employees.
“This is a great boon for the Quad-Cities’ hospitality industry because almost all those approximately 1,600 workers need hotel rooms and meals and entertainment,” said Joe Taylor, president and CEO of the Quad-Cities Convention & Visitors Bureau. “So, it really does boost the late winter, early spring seasons. I’m sure it fills the hotels in and around LeClaire.”
Darin said Exelon's budget for this outage is $30 million between payroll, equipment, and materials — which Exelon attempts to source locally now. Had this been the final refueling, the budget would have decreased to between $15 million and $17 million.
"A lot of money is infused in the Quad-Cities by an outage," he said.
Early leads a team in the Outage Command Center, or OCC, a war room of sorts where every department has a representative on hand and the work activities of some 2,000 people — contract and Exelon employees — are coordinated 24/7 throughout the outage's duration.
"In this refueling, 8,000 activities will be completed in an 18-day window," he said.
While the 1,600 contractors and 700 Exelon employees work on outage activities, the plant's remaining 100 employees are focused on maintaining the safe and reliable operations of the Unit 2 reactor. The supplemental workers include trained nuclear workers from the industry and skilled electricians, pipefitters, welders, laborers and contractors.
The new energy legislation, which required Exelon's commitment to continue operating both the plants at least another 10 years, also has served to re-energize the Quad-Cities station for a longer future.
"We want to make sure this plant runs very safely for the next 15 years to show the people of the Quad-Cities we warranted the great support we got from the Quad-City region in getting the Future Energy Jobs Bill passed and then signed by Gov. Rauner," said Bill Stoermer, plant spokesman. The plant's license runs through 2032.
More than $20 million in other projects and upgrades now will be completed, he said. Among them is a $7 million training facility addition designed to streamline how supplemental workers are processed into the plant during an outage, $10 million in equipment upgrades and $3 million in security upgrades.
"We're building a new nuclear storage facility on site to store spent fuel until the point a regional or national depository is opened," Stoermer said.
Minor projects include some remodeling and painting aimed at upgrading the facilities.
"We have two years worth of projects that would not have happened," he said. "We would not have invested the money."
Job interest rising
Exelon also plans to hire more than 400 new employees to return the Quad-Cities and Clinton plants back to full staffing after their ranks were decreased by cutbacks, attrition and retirements in anticipation of the possible closings.
Darin said the Quad-Cities should be back to more than 800 employees by the end of the second quarter.
"We would have thought it would be harder to get people now," he said, adding that the company feared job-hunters would be scared away by the past threat of closing. "It's been the opposite."
In fact, 3,000 people recently applied for 82 new openings.
The media attention throughout Exelon's long campaign and the legislative process "made people recognize these jobs are very high-paying jobs." In the aftermath, he said, "they now see the stability."
For Exelon workers and contract workers, the refueling at hand and the extended plant's life represents job security.
Jerry Lack, the new executive director of the Tri-City Building and Construction Trades Council, said the outage is welcome work employing 1,600 people for a five-week window. Although the construction trades "has lots of work right now," he said.
But the plant's long-term commitment will create more activity.
"The things they put off but knew had to be done, they’re going to have a lot of work the next couple years," he said.
Juan Reyna Jr., president of Laborers Local 309, Rock Island, is a year-round contract worker at Exelon, where he is responsible for handling any radiation protection gear, trash removal and other tasks.
"We embrace all that work. That's better than no work," he said.
Jennifer Swartz of Marseilles, Illinois, is busy working her first assignment at the Quad-Cities station. A carpenter with Laborers Union Local 393, she makes the rounds of nuclear plant outages and will work five or six across the Midwest a year.
The mother of four was relieved Quad-Cities station is remaining open.
"It's a paycheck and food on my table for my kids," she said.
Steve Black, a 33-year Exelon mechanical maintenance employee, said he would have had options had Exelon closed that "the younger guys" would not have had.
"I could have probably taken a buyout," said the 52-year-old from Albany, Illinois.
But now that the plant is here to stay, he said, "Everybody, especially the young guys (are determined) to do everything we can to make this the best plant. We're No. 1 in the Exelon fleet."
Black has committed to staying a couple extra years "to see this through."
"They're even looking at another extension (of the license)," he said of the next generation. "That's what they're looking forward to."