Touring Nebraska’s flooded nuke plants

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June 27th, 2011

Omaha, NE -The images are stunning: two nuclear power plants completely surrounded by water, as sandbags, levees and makeshift walls hold back the rising Missouri river. The Chairman of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission flew into Nebraska Sunday for a first-hand look at both Cooper Nuclear Station near Brownville, and the Fort Calhoun Nuclear Plant. His visit came just hours after a berm around the Fort Calhoun plant collapsed, and floodwaters rushed toward the nuclear containment building. But, officials say both plants are safe, and protected.

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The Fort Calhoun Nuclear Power Plant is surrounded by a sea of muddy water in this picture, taken approximately June 17th and provided by OPPD.

Walking along flooded farmland, outside Cooper Nuclear Station, you can see the river is now on both sides of the plant. It’s seeping up through the ground forming a standing water lake on the other side of the station. It’s an unnerving picture, but officials say there’s no cause for alarm.

“From this vantage point, where we’re at right now, we can’t even see the river,” said Drew Niehaus, Cooper’s Nuclear Communications Coordinator. He took me on a tour of the facility last week, as construction workers erected a massive wall of sand – on the dry side of the plant.

“These are HESCO barriers, which are basically very large sand barriers,” he said. “We don’t anticipate water hitting these at all.”

Niehaus said though rainfall has complicated the forecast, the river is not expected to rise to the point where Cooper would be forced to shut down.

“We’re not concerned with the river levels as they are right now,” Niehaus said. “We still have another over two feet before we’d be required to shut down. Quite frankly, everything, as far as Cooper is concerned is operations.”

Cooper Nuclear Station near Brownville is increasingly surrounded by Missouri waters, but the river has another two feet to rise before the plant would be required to shut down. (Photo by Robyn Wisch)

“I’m not satisfied with public pronouncements that everything’s fine, we have nothing to worry about,” said Tyson Slocum, who heads Public Citizen’s Energy Program in Washington, a consumer advocacy group that promotes alternative sources of energy. “We do have a lot to worry about.”

In a phone interview from Washington, Slocum said the inherent flaw with managing nuclear power is the inability to predict the unpredictable. In Japan, where a massive earthquake and tsunami caused a nuclear meltdown in March, Slocum says the scientists were prepared. They just weren’t prepared for both – and the size and scope of either.

“And that’s the issue,” he said. “You can write up a probable disaster scenario, but we can’t always account for the worst case.”

Nobody’s expecting a tsunami on the Missouri, but this is historic flooding. The Missouri hasn’t been this high since 1952. And the spring and summer have been wet and stormy. If an emergency arose, Cooper said the plant could be shut down in three minutes. But Slocum said that won’t solve the problem of the extremely hot reactor fuel, which takes time to cool.

“If you shut down the plant, and you lose the auxiliary cooling systems, then you’ve got the potential for an overheating situation,” he said, “and a potential meltdown.”

About two hours north of Cooper is Nebraska’s second nuclear plant: Fort Calhoun. From the air, the plant looks like a floating island in a sea of muddy water. Fort Calhoun is shut down. It went offline for refueling in April, and hasn’t come back.

“What they can’t see on a lot of the aerial pictures that have been taken,” said Jeff Hanson, who’s in charge of public information at Fort Calhoun, “… they can’t see that there is an aqua dam around the plant itself, and that it’s actually dry inside of that aqua dam. They can’t see the substation has an earthen berm around it, and that it is actually dry inside of that.”

But the aqua dam Hanson referred to collapsed this weekend. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission reported a 2000-foot water-filled berm collapsed at about 1:25 am Sunday morning “as a result of onsite activities.” In a statement, the NRC said “The collapse of the berm also allowed floodwaters to surround the main electrical transformers.” Operators switched to emergency diesel generators as a precautionary measure, the statement continued, and have since re-activated off-site power.

At Cooper, construction workers have erected a HESCO sand barrier close to the plant's main building, which officials say the water is not expected to reach. (Photo by Robyn Wisch)

Fort Calhoun is managed by the Omaha Public Power District. Cooper is run by the Nebraska Public Power District. Both companies have had trouble with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. Cooper was cited in April, after three workers were inadvertently exposed to radiation. And in May, when it shut down for refueling, it discovered a transformer had gone out – jeopardizing its on-site back-up diesel generators. Fort Calhoun was placed on a national “watch list” by the NRC last year and placed under investigation last year, after the NRC said the plant was not prepared — for flooding.

“Yes, they did find that,” Hanson said. “They found some penetrations that we did not know about, but we’ve been able to seal up those penetrations. So we’ve been working on this for several months now.”

Hanson said OPPD has had the gift of time to prepare for the flood, with warnings coming in from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. This is what they’ve trained for, he said, and they’re prepared.

Back at Cooper, Drew Niehaus said the plant’s number one priority is safety – and that includes their own.

“And that’s just it,” Niehaus said. “Cooper employs roughly 750 people. And not only do we work here, we all live in the area. If it wasn’t safe, we wouldn’t be here.”

3 Responses

  1. Glen Cook says:

    No major problems, as long as there is alternative means
    for fuel delivery for back up power due to anticipated infra-
    structure problems from flooding. However with that said they
    should review the need for water containment barriers accross the
    nation in the unforseen event of catastrophic flooding in other
    places.

    Also indian point ny should be closed !!!!!!!!

    NO if’s
    and’s
    or exuses ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

  2. Adhoc says:

    Nature sometimes wrecks havoc on society, but man helps to worsen the tragedy.

  3. Paul Felix Schott says:

    The Chinese Know Renewable Energy is a good thing. Most of the rest of the World is still a slave to Oil, Coal and Nuclear Power. All the Governments of the World now know it is wise to use Renewable Energy it is the Local Governments that are a little slow to learn what is best for all not just there pocket book.

    They fear people going off the grid all that tax money they will no longer be able to take from you. Wind and Solar Farms are growing all over the Earth. This could have happen years ago if the greedy wicked were stopped by the Real Good.
    The Freedom to get your own Power from the Wind and Sun, Solar Energy has been there for years. Are Libraries and Schools should have been the first to have gone Solar and Renewable Energy.

    Thank GOD for the Pioneers like John Schaeffer that Started Real Goods The first and Best catalog for Renewable Energy and Scientist Bill Young at the FSEC Florida Solar Energy Center and Monica D. Key Lindbergh for many years wrote to our legislators promoting Solar and Renewable Energy and many others. These Pioneers helped put Wind, Solar And Renewable Energy in the Spotlight for all the World to see.
    The Great Scientist Albert Einstein Stared it with a Dream that the day would come that all the World would use Solar Energy. His discovery of the law of the Photoelectric Effect won him the Nobel Prize in Physics. We still do not teach this to our young.

    GOD Bless all that help tell this to the World
    The Lord’s Little Helper
    Paul Felix Schott

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