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Troubled, idle Neb. nuke plant gradually improving

Josh Funk, Associated Press

OMAHA, Neb. (AP) -- The troubled Fort Calhoun nuclear power plant in Nebraska is improving, but regulators said Tuesday that significant work remains ahead as the utility works to address previous deficiencies and structural problems discovered last year.

Omaha Public Power District CEO Gary Gates said the utility is strengthening its oversight of the plant, and Exelon — the company OPPD hired four months ago to run Fort Calhoun — is improving the safety culture at the idle plant while overseeing the repairs.

"We are on the right path," Gates told the Nuclear Regulatory Commission at a half-day meeting focused on Fort Calhoun, which has been closed since April 2011.

But it appears likely that Fort Calhoun will reach the two-year anniversary of its shutdown this April without restarting.

"They've done a lot of work, but a substantial amount of work remains," said Michael Hay, who is one of the NRC officials overseeing Fort Calhoun.

The power plant initially shut down for refueling maintenance, but flooding along the Missouri River in 2011 and a series of safety violations forced it to stay closed. The violations include the failure of a key electrical part during a 2010 test, a small electrical fire in June 2011, several security-related violations and deficiencies in flood planning that were discovered a year before the extended flooding.

Utility officials still have to test a number of systems that haven't been used in nearly two years and complete other upgrades to the plant.

Plus, OPPD discovered last year that the structural supports inside the containment building that houses the reactor aren't strong enough to safely support the building under extreme circumstances. Hay said the structural deficiencies leave Fort Calhoun without an acceptable margin of safety right now.

"There's going to be a number of significant modifications that will be needed to support the containment structure," Hay said.

Once all that work is complete, then the Nuclear Regulatory Commission will inspect everything on a checklist of 450 items to make sure Fort Calhoun is ready to operate safely.

NRC officials reiterated Tuesday that there is no timetable for restarting Fort Calhoun.

Mike Ryan, with the Clean Nebraska environmental group, said he hopes Fort Calhoun is a long way away from restarting because of all the lingering safety questions.

"These structural problems seem to be the key issue now," said Ryan, who opposes nuclear power. He said he hopes regulators will consider keeping Fort Calhoun closed.

But OPPD officials remain committed to rehabilitating Fort Calhoun.

"We will restart Fort Calhoun. We understand what needs to be done and we will do so," Gates said. "We will return Fort Calhoun to operational excellence."

OPPD signed a 20-year deal with Exelon Corp. last fall to have the Chicago company run Fort Calhoun on a day-to-day basis. OPPD's officials say Exelon's experience safely operating 17 nuclear reactors at 10 different power plants has been helpful.


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

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