Fort Calhoun officials look to future of nuclear plant with optimism

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July 2nd, 2013

Omaha, NE – June 30th. That was the latest proposed restart date for the troubled Fort Calhoun Nuclear Station located about 20 miles North of Omaha. Now that the day has come and gone, questions are being raised as to when plant managers and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission will find common ground for the plant to become operational again.

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According to OPPD spokesperson Jeff Hanson, Fort Calhoun officials were optimistic- even with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s announcement last month that the plant had met only eight of 25 major performance issues studied during the inspections.

“Although we may have only met eight of those we were in process on all the other ones,” explained Hanson.

The plant has been offline since April of 2011 after a shutdown for routine maintenance. The following summer, flooding along the Missouri river forced it to stay closed.

Since then, the past two years have been defined by a series of operational violations, mechanical mishaps, management changes, and a marred public image of the plant.

May 17th was the latest in a series of public hearings put on by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to address and ease public concerns about the plant’s troubles. The NRC is the federal agency providing oversight of Calhoun. Ultimately the NRC has final say over a restart date for the plant. The question has been, if not now, then when?

The Fort Calhoun Nuclear Power Plant was surrounded by a sea of muddy water. This picture was taken approximately June 17, 2011. (Photo provided by OPPD)

The Fort Calhoun Nuclear Power Plant was surrounded by a sea of muddy water. This picture was taken approximately June 17, 2011. (Photo provided by OPPD)

David Lochbaum is the Director of the Nuclear Safety Project for the Union of Concerned Scientists in Washington, DC. He’s been considered one of the nation’s top independent nuclear power experts.

“Based on plants that have gone through a multi-year process like Ft Calhoun has gone through now- they seem to be toward the end of that stage,” said Lochbaum. “They’ve turned over a lot of rocks to find problems and are now in process of fixing those known problems and also having the NRC confirm that they’re satisfied that all the problems have been found and fixed.”

And part of the process has included OPPD turning management of day-to-day operations over to Exelon Corporation, last year. Exelon is a private, Chicago-based company which has billed itself as a leading U.S. energy provider. But, like Fort Calhoun, Exelon hasn’t been without its own problems- Including a recent leak on Exelon’s Dresden plant near Chicago. Company officials at the time said it never posed a public health threat.

“Exelon has a very good program,” said Lochbaum. “They set very high standards and do a generally, pretty good job of getting things done and meeting those standards. The one thing Exelon’s not real good at- if they get off course, they’re not as good as other companies at getting back on course. That may be because they don’t get off course as much as other companies do so they don’t get the practice at it as often. That’s a relatively small gig against a company that generally does things right.”

And OPPD has agreed. Hanson said the decision last year has been justified and that the Calhoun nuclear has been seeing positive results.

“It’s the largest nuclear power plant operator in the country and not just the largest, but it also operates top-quality nuclear power plants,” said Hanson. “We looked at them as people who know what they’re doing and could help us a great deal in this respect. If we come across a problem or a situation, we don’t have to solve it all by ourselves. We have a number of other highly qualified people who can help us solve it. It works out for us in a number of different ways.”

OPPD reportedly signed a 20 year-$400 million contract with Exelon. In the meantime, Nebraska Watchdog has reported 140 elected officials in and around Omaha are being invited to tour several key OPPD facilities- with Fort Calhoun being left off the list.

Hanson has shrugged off any criticism of the move, however, and said the purpose of the tour is to highlight changes made to OPPD’s North Omaha coal-fired plant, and that several recent tours of Fort Calhoun have been available to officials in the past.

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