RED WING -- Every year Xcel Energy refuels one of the nuclear power generators on Prairie Island. This is always an intensive process that requires help from hundreds of temporary workers. This year, the process is more complicated due to COVID-19.
When the pandemic began Xcel asked employees who were able to work from home to work remotely. Now, while many office employees are still not working at the plant, Xcel is beginning the process of bringing employees and contractors in for an autumn refueling.
Scott Sharp is the vice president of the Prairie Island nuclear plant.
“As far as the outage goes, there will be a few people of our own employees that we would have to bring back to support but the real main one is contractors. We bring in a temporary workforce every outage," he said.
“There are times that we might perform work during an outage that technically we could do online as well. So, we removed some of that work and we did that really thinking about our people and our communities to reduce the number of people that we bring in. So instead of roughly 800 people we’re going to have under 500 people coming in.”
Sharp estimates that 75% of contractors are local, from either Minnesota or Wisconsin. The other 25% come from all over the country. Sharp says that he would not be surprised if every state (except for Alaska and Hawaii) was represented by a contractor.
Xcel officials said they hope that the refueling can be done safely and without spreading the COVID-19 virus.
Rachel Filippi is the director of strategy and performance in human resources and employee services. She is also leading the return to the workplace program for Xcel Energy. Filippi explained that throughout the company new policies are being put in place to keep employees and communities healthy. These include a hotline for employees and advance notice to employees when they are expected to return to the office.
The Prairie Island refueling workers will be required to pass a COVID-19 test before entering the facility. Each individual will also be given a health kit that includes masks and hand sanitizer.
“We do take a pretty conservative approach that is grounded in CDC guidance to make sure that we’re following appropriate, established protocols for whether or not we’d have an employee stay home for a period of time of whether it’s ok for them to return to the workplace,” Filippi said.
Sharp believes that the contractors hired for the refueling will work diligently to keep themselves and their coworkers safe. According to Sharp, many contractors make a living by working a few nuclear refuelings a year.
“They want to protect themselves and their families and the way they make a living. So they’re not coming here thinking they want to be sick and get sick while they’re here, they want to make sure they can execute the outage and make their wage,” Sharp said.