Fort Calhoun Nuclear Station already has quite a “to do” list and it keeps getting larger as they try to show regulators the plant is safe enough to produce power for the first time in almost two years.
The Omaha Public Power District (OPPD) said it is making progress on the lengthy checklist. But OPPD, the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) and nuclear power experts all seem to agree it will probably be midyear — at best — before the plant can restart.
OPPD has already been working on the new concerns for months and doesn’t believe they will slow progress. But after multiple missteps put Fort Calhoun squarely on regulators’ radar, a longer list isn’t likely to speed an already delayed process.
The district has pushed back its anticipated restart date several times and must keep waiting until regulators have inspected and cleared more than 450 separate items.
The announcement of the new concerns comes as the NRC begins a series of comprehensive inspections at the plant, about 20 miles north of Omaha. The newly identified issues on the checklist:
• Concerns about Teflon used to seal electrical cables inside pipes.
• Concerns about the load-bearing capabilities of some structures inside the plant.
• The potential for failure in a system used to keep the reactor cool in the event of an emergency.
Work to fix all three of those issues has been under way for about six months, said Tim Burke, OPPD’s vice president of customer service and public affairs.
For now, anyway, he doesn’t see additional delays leading to a need for midyear rate increases.
Fort Calhoun Nuclear Station
April 9, 2011: Plant goes into a refueling shutdown.
September 2011: Plant remains off-line because of Missouri River flooding. Fort Calhoun is downgraded to the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s lowest performance category.
January 2012: OPPD says the plant should be operational by summer 2012.
February 2012: The power district brings in consultants from Exelon Corp.
August 2012: OPPD turns over management of the plant to Exelon and targets Dec. 1 as reactor heat-up date.
November 2012: OPPD sets a 2013 budget with planned restart of Feb. 1, 2013.
January 2013: NRC inspections begin.
The district has previously announced several potential restart dates for the plant, beginning last January, when the target was summer 2012. After that came and went, the district said it was moving toward heating up the reactor on Dec. 1, 2012. And the 2013 budget approved by the board late last year planned for a Feb. 1 restart.
Tony Vegel, director of nuclear materials safety for the NRC’s Region IV, which includes Nebraska, said his agency has never given OPPD an estimate of when the plant could be ready. Those timelines, he said, have come from the district itself.
“They’ve agreed to fix this stuff and fix it right,” he said. “They can say what they want from a plant perspective. But the bottom line is, whatever they’re going to do, what’s been done, we’re going to go behind them and verify that yes, they’ve thoroughly addressed it.”
Fort Calhoun began its refueling outage on April 9, 2011. Missouri River flooding kept the plant off-line, but that was only the beginning.
After inspectors discovered other safety problems, including ones related to a fire, the plant made its way onto the NRC’s list of problem reactors. It is one of just five plants that have received a “red finding” — the most serious level of safety concern — since 2000.
The findings put the plant into the NRC’s 0350 review system for troubled reactors. It’s a lengthy, complex process that requires thousands of pages of paperwork and inspections that get down to the smallest details.
One recent issue discovered at Fort Calhoun, for example, involved bolts that were a few inches shorter than regulation size. They weren’t causing any problems, but there was potential — if the area was struck by an earthquake.
And questions about those bolts will probably lead to inspections of bolts not suspected of being the wrong size. If there is a problem in one place, the NRC says, it’s important to check it out everywhere else.