OMAHA, Neb. (AP) - A year has passed since the Fort Calhoun nuclear plant shut down for maintenance, but the outage will continue for at least several more months while the utility works to prove to regulators it has resolved several safety concerns.
The power plant about 20 miles north of Omaha spent last summer surrounded by Missouri River floodwaters, but the safety violations Nuclear Regulatory Commission inspectors have found at the Omaha Public Power District plant appear to be a bigger factor keeping Fort Calhoun closed.
OPPD officials had initially said they hoped to resume generating electricity at Fort Calhoun sometime this spring, but regulators said this week they don't expect the plant to be ready before fall.
"The reason it takes so long is it wasn't just one problem that the owner has to fix," said David Lochbaum, nuclear safety director at the advocacy group Union of Concerned Scientists.
Other U.S. nuclear plants that have gone through similar prolonged shutdowns have typically been offline for about 18 months, so the duration of Fort Calhoun's shutdown isn't unusual for a plant in its position, Lochbaum said. There have been nearly 50 occasions of nuclear plants that had to be shut down for more than a year since the Three Mile Island accident in 1979.
The violations found at Fort Calhoun include a small electrical fire last June, the failure of a key electrical part during a 2010 test and deficiencies in flood planning that were discovered a year before last summer's extended flooding along the Missouri River.
The flooding extended the shutdown because the floodwater made it difficult to function at Fort Calhoun, with everything having to be carried into the site by hand, OPPD President and CEO Gary Gates said. Workers used elevated walkways to cross several hundred feed of flooded parking lots last summer, so all the replacement parts after the fire also had to be carried in.
Few flood repairs were needed, but it took more than a month to clear all the debris and silt from Fort Calhoun, and the entire facility needed to be reviewed for damage.
"We didn't have to do a lot of physical fixes, but we had to do a lot of inspecting," Gates said.
The utility is still finishing its review of subsoil conditions at Fort Calhoun to make sure nothing shifted.
Officials at the NRC and OPPD have said Fort Calhoun's problems never represented a threat to public safety.
People who live near the plant can take comfort in the fact that Fort Calhoun has been in cold shutdown mode since last April 9, and the NRC imposed its strictest level of scrutiny on Fort Calhoun in December because of the violations and the prolonged shutdown.
In making changes at Fort Calhoun, OPPD sought help from other nuclear plant operators and hired experts from the nation's largest operator of nuclear plants, Exelon.
Dave Bannister, OPPD's Chief nuclear officer, said workers are committed to making the needed changes.
"No one is satisfied with where we are," Bannister said. "They want to see this plant get back to excellence.
At a public meeting last Wednesday, OPPD officials took some pointed questions about the plant's progress, making clear it could take some time for the utility to regain trust. But Lochbaum said it appears that OPPD has gotten the message and started to turn things around.
"There's more and more evidence they're doing the right things," Lochbaum said.
One example of the improvements Lochbaum has noticed is that OPPD officials are no longer arguing much with the NRC over the severity of violations. Instead the utility is focusing on fixing any concerns that are found.
The changes made at nuclear plants that have been through this process before tend to be lasting ones, Lochbaum said.
"It's painful now and costly, but it does seem to pay dividends down the road and the performance does improve," Lochbaum said.
The remaining work at Fort Calhoun includes a detailed review of several areas of operations that OPPD plans to conduct, and an extensive series of inspections the Nuclear Regulatory Commission will conduct. And then OPPD will finish up the last couple weeks of refueling maintenance work the utility started last spring.
NRC officials plan to spend the summer checking and re-checking systems at Fort Calhoun until they are satisfied.
"The NRC won't accept promises. At some point, it needs objective evidence of safety," Lochbaum said.
Last year, OPPD spent about $32 million to buy electricity from other sources during the peak demand period of the summer when many air conditioning units run long hours.
OPPD officials said they're not sure what it will cost to buy power this summer to replace what Fort Calhoun would have produced because the utility's insurance policies may cover some of the cost and demand for electricity will vary with the weather. Plus, the price of electricity may vary.
Gates said the utility has been able to cover the cost of the improvements being made at Fort Calhoun with its existing budget because OPPD delayed any projects at the plant that weren't related to the restart and the utility has worked to cut costs elsewhere.
NRC page on Fort Calhoun: http://1.usa.gov/GBq2TF
Omaha Public Power District: www.oppd.com