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Neb. utility touts progress at troubled nuke plant

Josh Funk, Associated Press

Workers install penetration seals at the Fort Calhoun nuclear power plant in Blair, Neb., as seen during a media tour Tuesday, March 26, 2013. The power plant has been idle since April 2011 because of a series of safety problems and massive flooding by the Missouri River in 2011. (AP Photo/Nati Harnik)

BLAIR, Neb. (AP) -- Utility officials say the troubled Nebraska nuclear power plant that has been idle since 2011 might be ready to restart yet this spring — shortly after the two-year anniversary of its shutdown — but first they'll have to convince federal regulators the plant is ready.

On Tuesday, Omaha Public Power District officials showed off the progress that's been made at the Fort Calhoun nuclear power plant. Still, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission says significant work remains at the plant about 20 miles north of Omaha.

The site has been shut down since 2011 because of a series of safety concerns and flooding.

Lou Cortopassi, OPPD's chief nuclear officer, said he's confident Fort Calhoun will be ready to restart this spring because many of the issues at the plant have been addressed, and there's a clear idea of what work remains.

"I have a high confidence level that the NRC will approve restart," Cortopassi said.

But OPPD has offered several projected restart dates and those have come and gone, leaving Fort Calhoun still idle.

The plant's closure in April 2011 began with routine refueling maintenance, but massive flooding along the Missouri River that year and several safety and security violations forced it to remain closed.

The safety and security violations at Fort Calhoun include the failure of a key electrical part during a 2010 test, a small electrical fire in June 2011, a weak safety culture at the plant, several security-related violations and deficiencies in flood planning that were discovered a year before the extended flooding.

In addition to those problems, OPPD discovered last year that some of the structural supports inside the building that houses the reactor weren't strong enough. And under extreme circumstances, they wouldn't have been able to support the building.

Cortopassi said additional analysis with modern equipment has been done that shows the structures are strong enough for now, but they will likely need to be reinforced during the plant's next refueling outages.

OPPD officials recently decided to replace the wires in more than 300 openings into the building that houses the reactor because they used Teflon insulation, which tends to disintegrate under high levels of radiation. That replacement work was one of the things the utility highlighted on Tuesday's tour showing the plant's progress.

The nuclear industry learned about the problems with Teflon in high-radiation environments in 1985, and regulators notified every plant. Fort Calhoun was the only U.S. nuclear plant that continued using Teflon in some pipes that carry wires into the containment building.

OPPD is working on addressing a list of about 480 items in 18 major categories that the Nuclear Regulatory Commission says must be fixed before the plant will be allowed to restart. So far, the power district has resolved more than 125 items off the checklist, but that is less than half the total.

Nuclear Regulatory Commission spokewoman Lara Uselding reiterated this week that regulators won't allow the plant to restart until they are satisfied it can operate safely. She said there is no timeline for restart.

"We're just focused on safety and the work that needs to be done," Uselding said.

The commission is planning to hold another public meeting about Fort Calhoun Wednesday evening at the Doubletree Hotel in downtown Omaha. After regulators and utility officials provide an update, the public will be able to ask questions.

Environmental groups in Nebraska and Iowa have urged regulators and OPPD to shut down Fort Calhoun because of concerns about its safety and the cost of repairs. Clean Nebraska and the Sierra Club of Iowa have both called for Fort Calhoun to be closed permanently.

Last year, OPPD signed a 20-year contract with Exelon because of its experience and safe track record operating 17 nuclear reactors at 10 different power plants. Cortopassi and the other OPPD officials leading the tour Tuesday said there has been a significant improvement in the plant's operation since Exelon got involved.

Joshua Bousum, who oversees emergency planning at Fort Calhoun, said he's seen a clear difference in the response rate to pages when there is an emergency drill. Nearly everyone responds now instead of the 50 percent to 60 percent response rate a couple years ago.

"It's not about meeting the minimum level anymore," Bousum said.

Workers say much of the change has come from greater attention to detail at the plant that wasn't always present before. For instance, when doors between areas of the plant are left open now, there is an investigation to determine how that happened and any employees involved get training on the proper way to close doors.

Or when a minor injury happens that simply requires a Band-Aid, a safety report is still filled out and the incident is analyzed.

OPPD imposed a 6.9 percent increase in electricity rates in January for customers across southeast Nebraska, largely to finance a $143 million bill to fix the problems at Fort Calhoun.

But that price tag doesn't account for some of the newly discovered problems at the plant, and the costs will continue to increase if Fort Calhoun's restart is delayed past summer because OPPD will be forced to buy electricity from other utilities to satisfy peak demand.


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NRC page on Fort Calhoun: http://1.usa.gov/GBq2TF

Omaha Public Power District: http://www.oppd.com