Officials planning flood recovery for Nebraska nuclear power plant

This photo from June 14, 2011, shows the Fort Calhoun nuclear power plant surrounded by flood waters from the Missouri River in Fort Calhoun, Neb. Officials said on Wednesday, July 27, 2011, that the power plant will be thoroughly inspected and any flood damage repaired before the plant restarts sometime this fall.

? When the Fort Calhoun nuclear power plant will be able to restart is still not clear, because the utility that operates it won’t be able to inspect it for damage until floodwaters from the overflowing Missouri River recede, officials said Wednesday.

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission met with Omaha Public Power District officials to discuss what steps will be needed before the plant can reopen. Utility officials and regulators emphasized safety throughout the public meeting.

“Regardless of the river level, we will not restart the plant until it is safe to do so,” said OPPD’s Chief Nuclear Officer Dave Bannister.

Much of the nuclear plant about 20 miles north of Omaha has been surrounded by Missouri River floodwaters since at least June, but the plant itself remains dry inside. Fort Calhoun has been shut down since April because it was being refueled before the flooding began.

Utility officials say they have no set timeline for restarting it because they won’t know what work is needed until after the water level drops. The plant may reopen this fall, but it could even be delayed until next spring depending upon repairs, inspections and the weather.

In addition to making repairs and inspecting parts, OPPD will also have to complete the normal refueling maintenance that has been on hold since April. Those tasks alone might take about two weeks to complete.

The NRC must approve of the plan for inspections and repairs at Fort Calhoun, which remains under a low-level emergency status called a “notification of unusual event” because of the flooding. NRC officials promised to closely monitor the efforts to ensure the plant is safe and doesn’t represent a threat to the public.

“We’ll do what we need to do to verify the station is ready to return to power,” said Elmo Collins, the NRC’s regional administrator.

Within the next two weeks, OPPD will submit a detailed recovery plan for Fort Calhoun to the NRC. But that framework will likely be updated and revised once officials get a chance to fully inspect the facility.

Fort Calhoun employees have been using an elevated catwalk more than a quarter-mile-long each day to cross the flooded parking lot. But the utility has been able to keep the inside of its buildings and key equipment mostly dry with a network of flood barriers and a number of pumps. The main building at Fort Calhoun is at 1,004 feet above sea level, which is about 2 feet below Wednesday’s river level of 1,005 feet, 9 inches.

Last month, Nuclear Regulatory Commission Chairman Gregory Jaczko visited Fort Calhoun and the state’s other nuclear power plant run by the Nebraska Public Power District. Jaczko said both Fort Calhoun and Cooper were safe, and that the utilities had taken prudent steps to protect the public.

NPPD’s Cooper plant in southeast Nebraska is more elevated than Fort Calhoun, so the floodwaters didn’t ever get as close to the facility. Cooper was able to continue operating throughout the flooding. NPPD officially lifted the “notification of unusual event” status at Cooper on June 13 after the floodwaters began to recede.

The base of the Cooper plant, which is about 70 miles south of Omaha, sits at 903.5 feet above sea level, nearly three feet above the highest point reached by the Missouri River’s floodwaters.

The Missouri River may not return to within its banks until sometime in September because the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers continues to release massive amounts of water from the upstream reservoirs. The corps says the flooding was caused by heavy spring rains in the upper Plains and substantial Rocky Mountain snowpack melting into the river basin.