NRC Chief: Plants are safe

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June 27th, 2011

Omaha, NE – The head of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission is on a two-day trip through Nebraska. He’s taking a first-hand look at the state’s nuclear power plants, and reassuring the public that they are safe. The plants have sparked national attention, as the rising Missouri waters surround them, and troubling pictures show Fort Calhoun floating like an island in muddy water.

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NRC Chair, Gregory Jaczko, says he can assure the public both of Nebraska's nuclear plants are operating safely. (Photo by Robyn Wisch)

NRC Chair Gregory Jaczko’s work was cut out for him just hours after he arrived in Nebraska on Sunday. At about 1:30 Sunday morning, a 2,000 ft. berm protecting the Fort Calhoun nuclear power plant collapsed. But at a press conference with reporters Monday afternoon, Jaczko said the plant is still safe. And he said the berm was not a safety measure required by the NRC, it was simply an additional layer of protection.

“That device was never intended to provide a specific safety function,” he said. “It was a back up to a back up, but it was not the kind of thing that we required of them to ensure safety.”

Fort Calhoun, which is operated by the Omaha Public Power District, was placed on a national “watch list” by the NRC last year, after the agency found the plant was inadequately prepared for flooding. But Jaczko said although the final inspection is not complete, he’s assured OPPD has made the right modifications.

A berm collapsed at Fort Calhoun Nuclear Plant early Sunday morning, but officials say the berm was not essential to the plant's safety. (Photo provided by OPPD).

“The NRC is ultimately I think here to make sure that the public understands the steps that we’re taking to make sure that Omaha Public Power District does the right thing.”

Jaczko added Fort Calhoun’s nuclear fuel has cooled significantly, since it first went into a cold shutdown in April for routine refueling. That greatly reduces the risk of a nuclear meltdown, he said, if the safety systems collapsed. Jaczko also visited Cooper Nuclear Station near Brownville, which has not shut down. He said the river still has several feet to rise before Cooper’s safety systems would be in jeopardy.

“We have a very robust system in this country to protect public health and safety,” he said. “That involves, first and foremost, ensuring a large number of safety systems. And if all of those systems were to fail, we then ultimately have a very well-used and well-developed emergency response system in this country to evacuate and take whatever protective actions are necessary.”

Jaczko says Cooper Nuclear Station can continue to operate safely, and will likely not be required to shut down. (Photo by Robyn Wisch)

Jaczko added the NRC made several changes to its systems and regulations after the Japanese nuclear disaster in March. And once the waters have receded, there may be more changes in store to help the agency and the operators better deal with record flooding.

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