Leadership change at Fort Calhoun viewed as major step forward
September 12th, 2012
Omaha, NE – Omaha Public Power Districtâ€™s troubled Fort Calhoun Nuclear Power Plant has been offline for almost a year and a half. And still, no date has been set for the plant to return to operation. Plant officials held a public meeting with nuclear regulators in Blair Tuesday night, where they discussed the way forward under new, private management, and said the leadership change is a significant step in the right direction.
Fort Calhoun, which sits about 20 miles north of Omaha, has been non-operational since April last year, even before the flooding Missouri River surrounded the plant with water. Addressing an audience of about 100 people at a public meeting with Nuclear Regulatory Commission officials, OPPD said the station is getting closer to restarting, but is still a long way off.
â€œLadies and gentleman, we will not restart Fort Calhoun station until we are satisfied that our people, our plant and our processes are ready to support a safe and efficient restart,â€ said Lou Cortopassi, the new Vice President of Fort Calhoun, after a two-hour presentation. â€œBut we are on our way.â€
Cortopassi has been on the job since January, and comes to OPPD from Exelon Corp. in Chicago. In August, the OPPD board voted unanimously to turn management of the plant over to Exelon, a private company, which operates 17 nuclear reactors around the country and produces 20 percent of the nationâ€™s nuclear energy supply.
Mike Prospero, Fort Calhounâ€™s new plant manager, said OPPD now has a â€œblended teamâ€ of Exelon and OPPD staff. â€œWe are learning,â€ Prospero said. â€œWe are going to be a learning organization. We are not there yetâ€¦We have work to do, and we understand that.â€
The work they have before them includes a long list of tasks. The NRC is monitoring the plant, as it works to correct a host of problems: issues ranging from general maintenance to newly-discovered design flaws with the plantâ€™s nuclear containment, to rebuilding materials damaged in last yearâ€™s flood. On every item in the NRCâ€™s checklist, Fort Calhoun was incomplete.
Tony Vegel, the NRCâ€™s acting director of reactor safety for the region, said the NRC has not yet scheduled a final inspection, because the plant is not ready for one. â€œFor each and every one of these issues, we are going to be doing an independent NRC inspection of the quality of the work,â€ he said. Referring to OPPDâ€™s presentation, he said, â€œThese are some great bar graphs and I appreciate it helps us understand it. But weâ€™re going to really judge you on the performance.â€
But a major point on Fort Calhounâ€™s checklist is more nebulous than quantitative. It has to do with changing the â€œsafety cultureâ€ of the organization. Mike Prospero told regulators the NRCâ€™s Corrective Action Program that was provided to Fort Calhoun as a path to restarting the plant was not understood by former staff. He said the â€œbeliefs and valuesâ€ of the organization â€œprecluded self-improvementâ€ and that the biggest change that will move the plant in the right direction is the new leadership.
Gary Gates, the CEO of OPPD, responded to the audienceâ€™s questions on that issue. Dâ€™Shawn Cunningham, who introduced himself as a member of Occupy Omaha, told Gates it sounded like OPPD was outsourcing its responsibilities to a private company. â€œAre we maintaining our integrity as a publicly-owned and operated power plant?â€ Cunningham asked. â€œIâ€™m glad you asked that,â€ Gates responded, â€œbecause we want to make sure this is really clear. OPPD continues to own the plant, continues to hold the license to the plant and is responsible for the operation of that plant.â€
â€œWeâ€™ve chosen to take a path with Exelon Corporation, which will strengthen our operations,â€ he added. Gates said as a single nuclear unit, Fort Calhoun doesnâ€™t receive the benefits of operating with a larger fleet.
â€œNot that we canâ€™t, and we have in the past,â€ he said. â€œWeâ€™ve operated the plant in excellent fashion, but itâ€™s harder to do with all of todayâ€™s environmentâ€¦ regulations and issues that we face.â€
Gates said the new Exelon management team will report to OPPDâ€™s Board of Directors, â€œand ultimately, the authority rides with that board.â€
“But your solution was to privatize, yes?” Cunningham pressed. “No,” Gates responded. “We have not privatized any part of OPPD. At all.”
Another audience member, Mike Ryan, asked Gates for a specific amount that OPPD has spent so far on restart and recovery costs at Fort Calhoun. Gates said the total costs are still being accumulated, but the plant is focused on minimizing the impact on rate payers. That answer didnâ€™t satisfy Ryan.
â€œYou donâ€™t kind of keep a running tally of how much youâ€™re spending?â€ Ryan asked. â€œWe do keep our budgets,â€ Gates said. â€œWe take cost adjustments as we go along. We have numbers available. But I donâ€™t have those.â€
Gates added OPPDâ€™s focus is to neutralize the impact on ratepayers, and he said OPPD should know the full cost of the recovery by the end of the year.
But itâ€™s still not clear whether Fort Calhoun will be back up and running by then.
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