Nebraska nuclear station officials attempt to move past flooding, fire and violations
April 17th, 2012
Lincoln, NE – A nuclear generating station located between Fort Calhoun and Blair, Nebraska is attracting national attention, but not in a good way. Reporter Ben Bohall examines the current status of Fort Calhoun Nuclear Station, and the rocky year it’s trying to leave behind.
It’s been a tough year for officials at the Omaha Public Power District and Fort Calhoun Nuclear Station, from media outcries and national criticism all the way to committee hearings in Washington, D.C.
Last February, members of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission fired off questions in a meeting designed to address numerous violations at Fort Calhoun since April 2011. After an hour of presentations and performance evaluations, OPPD President Gary Gates summed up the complicated situation in four simple words: “We lost our edge.”
As Gates addressed Regional Administrator Elmo Collins and other members of the NRC in the nation’s capital, he stressed that the station was moving past a year of turmoil and frustration, including a series of violations issued by the NRC.
“We understand we have let the industry down and we have let ourselves down with this performance,” Gates said. “We have the drive, commitment and heart to return this station to high performance ”
“We’re a work-in-progress,” he continued. “We’re challenging ourselves, questioning everything – we’re doing deep dives to get the root causes identified and we’ll deal with them. Changes, we will make. You have my personal, and company’s, commitment on that.”
And there’s been little doubt the road would be a long one. Though the plant was initially shut down in April of 2011 after a routine refueling outage, and it was kept offline during a strenuous effort last summer to hold back the rising Missouri River floodwaters that surrounded the station.
But David Lochbaum, director of the Nuclear Safety Project for the Union of Concerned Scientists, said the plant is still in shutdown status due to a series of safety and security issues.
“When the NRC inspectors start finding problems that may be indicative of deeper problems, they pull the string on those to see if those are isolated events or whether they’re the tip of the iceberg,” he said. “At Fort Calhoun, when the NRC inspectors pulled the string, they found several more problems attached.”
And they didn’t like what they found. The federal agency’s inspections turned up violations ranging from procedural errors to design inadequacies. Some were self-revealed. The most recent violation occurred last June, when an electrical fire broke out at the plant. That fire caused a temporary loss of power to pumps used to cool a pool holding spent nuclear fuel – it was labeled a “red” violation, the most severe. The plant is now held to the NRC’s highest level of oversight and inspection.
But there’s been perhaps an even louder voice of concern than that of the NRC: the residents of Fort Calhoun and Blair, Nebraska.
Jane Heinrich is a retired schoolteacher living in Blair. She said the plant’s recent performance issues have left her with a lot of questions.
“I feel safe here. But I am a little concerned because of their past record,” Heinrich said. “I feel it’s important that I as a citizen have the right to say something about that.”
Standing in the front row of the packed auditorium at Blair High School on April 6th, she addressed NRC and OPPD member panels in a public meeting.
“So tell me,” Heinrich said. “Why should I trust you now?”
Since January, the NRC and OPPD have held two public meetings in an attempt to provide full disclosure on Fort Calhoun’s recovery plan. Hundreds turned up for both events.
As the comments poured in, OPPD officials like Chief Nuclear Officer David Bannister were quick to voice regret, as well as promise that the station was working past its problems.
“I personally also live near the plant. So does my family,” Bannister said. “It’s very meaningful to me each and every day that I’m there to oversee your safety, and also the safety of everybody in this area and everybody in this community.
“I’m disappointed that I’m standing before you and sharing this with you, but the idea is that I recognize where we are now, (and) I’m not satisfied with that,” he continued. “I’m going to do everything within my power and the company’s going to do everything You won’t see me back here again, you won’t see the company back here again.”
That’s a sentiment that’s been shared by Gates, OPPD’s president, who said safety is the company’s top priority, stressing that it will trump any plans to restart the plant.
“I would categorically say the public has always been safe,” Gates said. “It’s never been in any kind of unsafe condition. That is the absolute criteria of running a nuclear power plant. Safety is a primary value here at OPPD, period, around our whole operation. That will also be the driving force behind us saying we’re ready to start up: when we’re satisfied and we’re ready to do it safely.”