OPPD’s nuclear problems: how far will they go?

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February 27th, 2012

Omaha, NE – Omaha Public Power District has come under heavy criticism from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission in recent days over its handling of the nuclear power plant just north of Omaha: Fort Calhoun. The plant has been offline for several months as crews work to repair damage from last year’s Missouri flood. And in the interim, more problems at the plant have surfaced.

Nebraska Watchdog’s Joe Jordan has been covering the story. KVNO News’ Robyn Wisch checked in with Jordan for the latest.

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RW: So even before the great flood of 2011 hit Fort Calhoun last summer, the plant has been on the Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s radar for quite some time as a utility with potential problems. (The plant was cited for inadequate preparations for a flooding emergency in 2010)

But much of that only came to light when the plant actually came under threat of the Missouri waters. The plant has been offline since then – for just about a year now – and in that time the problems have only deepened. Take us back in the story to last summer.

The Fort Calhoun Nuclear Power Plant was surrounded by a sea of muddy water last summer. This picture was taken approximately June 17, 2011 and provided by OPPD.

(A report from KVNO News for NPR on the flooding at both Fort Calhoun and Cooper Nuclear Power Plant last summer)

JJ: The plant’s been offline since April 9th of a year ago, 2011. At that point, it was a routine inspection situation. The plant was taken offline as intended by the utility. Then came the flooding. And because of the flooding and the concerns that the water was going to reach the plant, obviously the plant stayed shut down. Since that time though, in that interim, in June of 2011, there was a fire at Fort Calhoun, which didn’t get a lot of attention at the time. But several months later, the NRC realized the gravity of what took place at that fire, and it’s still not, I don’t think, completely clear to the public how significant that fire was because the plant was already shut down. So there was no health risk to the community as such, but the NRC made it very clear that among other things, OPPD failed to timely tell the rescue people in that area that there was a fire at the plant, and because of that the NRC pretty much gave them a slap on the back of the head and said don’t do that again.

OPPD was reprimanded by the NRC for taking too long to notify officials about an electrical fire at the plant on June 7, 2011. Regulations require notification within 15 minutes. OPPD took 16 minutes to respond. According to OPPD, the plant “temporarily lost power to a pump that cools the spent-fuel pool.”

Joe Jordan asked OPPD President Gary Gates about last year’s fire at a meeting with reporters:

And then just the other day we found out, the NRC said, even without the flooding, even if there hadn’t been a flood, the fire alone was going to be enough to keep the plant in a shutdown situation. Add the flood to the fire and other problems, and now other problems that the NRC has realized at Fort Calhoun, and we now we have a situation where we’re going on, as you said, almost a year and the plant remains shutdown.

RW: How much do we know now about the extent of the damage from the flood and how precarious the situation really was at the time?

JJ: Well, what we know now is that the plant suffered certain damage from the flood. Most recently, the NRC said its biggest concern is they’ve checked out the plant, and I think they’ve gone through what they can see above ground. Their biggest concern right now is below the ground, and how much damage was done underneath the earth where the Fort Calhoun plant sits on. And according to the NRC, they haven’t determined that yet, that’s still open for questions. There was a public hearing in Omaha in January. And some members of the public actually raised that issue, before I think we heard it from anybody else. Some people in the general public were wondering is the ground underneath Fort Calhoun secure? And now NRC is making it very clear they don’t know the answer to that yet, and they’re still trying to figure it out.

RW: So last week, OPPD came under fire at a meeting at NRC headquarters in Washington. As you reported, NRC Commissioner William Magwood said the issues at Fort Calhoun “sound like a safety culture problem.” And others wondered “what’s going on in that organization.” (Watch the briefing in full here)

To that, Gary Gates, president of OPPD responded: “We’re clearly not satisfied with our performance. We’d like to assure you we have the support of our entire company and our board per resources. Also, the majority of the workforce at Fort Calhoun are experienced, long-term employees. They have operated at a high level. We lost our edge.”

Video of Gary Gates’ remarks, edited by Nebraska Watchdog:

RW: “We lost our edge.” Quite a significant admission from the President of the company. What do you think the repercussions of this could be for the management at OPPD?

JJ: First of all, I don’t think you’ll ever hear Gary Gates or anyone from OPPD say “we lost our edge.” I think those words have probably been banned from OPPD. In terms of the impact, ultimately it’s up to the board of directors. It’s an eight-member board. Most people know that there’s an OPPD board of directors. But I venture to guess if you ask somebody to name one, they’d have a hard time doing it. So at the moment, the OPPD board seems to be okay with Mr. Gates and his management team. Could that change? Certainly it could. But for the moment, it looks like Gates’ job is safe.

(In this briefing on Fort Calhoun by Bill Borchardt, Executive Director of Operations at the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, dated Feb. 22 at the “management changes” are listed as an element of a sustainability plan for Fort Calhoun)

But again, part of this will depend on further challenges by the NRC and possibly if the public steps up and says more and more, what’s going on at that plant? Then I think all bets would be off in terms of how secure some of those people’s jobs are.

More from Nebraska Watchdog:

Fort Calhoun’s $83 a minute problem

OPPD Chief: “I’m not concerned about my position”

3 Responses

  1. mark nielsen says:

    Turn it in to a natural gas driven plant. IT’S SAFER!!!!! Natural gas is cheap.

  2. patricia stutzman says:

    Wow! Surely, some folks I would think would be extremely nervous over these events and just who is on the board and what are their expectations and guarantees to the general public?

  3. Bob says:

    ‘Turn it into a natural gas driven plant’… really? Do you know how a nuclear facility operates? You can’t simply turn a knob and have it be a natural gas operated plant.

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