Touring Nebraska’s flooded nuke plants
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.
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.”
“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.
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.”