The Fort Calhoun Nuclear Station in Nebraska was in deep water with federal regulators before the Missouri River flooded.
Now that the river is returning to its banks, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) is back with more bad news for the reactor’s owner, the Omaha Public Power District (OPPD).
On Tuesday, federal regulators downgraded Fort Calhoun’s performance to the lowest possible category, save shutting it down. One other nuclear plant among the nation’s 104 licensed reactors shares the same ranking, Browns Ferry in Alabama.
Regulators gave the utility a D grade because of two shortcomings in its safety systems, one having to do with flood preparedness and the other with a faulty electrical connector. The flooding concern dates to 2009 and was not associated with this year’s flooding. The connector problem dates to a 2010 federal inspection.
OPPD Board Chairman John Green said he is confident the power company can return Fort Calhoun to top performing status. In the meantime, the board will send representatives to meet with federal regulators and the nuclear industry’s self-policing association, the Institute of Nuclear Power Operations. Additionally, the board will seek outside expertise for advice.
“The first thing that management has to do is come to us with a plan and show us they’re the ones who can do it. If they can, they’ll be provided the resources. We’ll not shirk providing resources,” Green said.
Green said he is confident in OPPD’s management.
“I believe these people can do that. If I didn’t believe they could do it, I’d be asking for wholesale changes … and I’m not at that point,” he said.
Gary Gates, chief executive and president of OPPD, and David Bannister, vice president and chief nuclear officer, said they are confident OPPD can restore the reactor to good standing.
“We take this very seriously,” Gates said. “While our employees performed admirably during the recent Missouri River flooding, we know that we must find ways to constantly improve and change our organizational speed to address issues that come with running a plant.”
Bannister said OPPD will dedicate a full-time staff to attacking the problems.
One of the things that concerns federal regulators is the two problems flagged by the NRC occurred in the same performance category, said Lara Uselding, spokeswoman for the commission. OPPD has gotten two citations from the NRC in what’s called mitigating systems. Those are the protections in place to keep a potentially bad problem from becoming potentially catastrophic.
In 2009, during an inspection, the NRC noted OPPD’s flood protections were not at the level they needed to be. OPPD immediately took steps to address those concerns. In 2010, the NRC flagged the utility for a problem with an electrical connector. They also fixed that problem, Bannister said. Additionally, it had multiple backups that were working.
In no case, the NRC and OPPD stress, was the plant ever in a dangerous condition. Instead, the problems indicated a somewhat degraded ability to guarantee all the backup systems were functioning.
To ensure OPPD improves performance, federal regulators will intensify inspections, Uselding said. Uselding said there’s no specified end date for when they will lift the adverse ranking. Though they fixed the problems, the NRC needs convincing the procedures that led to the problems are not problems anymore before changing a plant’s grade.
OPPD cannot restart its nuclear plant, which has been off-line since April, until it can prove that all equipment and systems affected by flooding are working properly, Uselding said. However, it can restart the reactor even if it still has the current grade.
“If we allow them to restart, they are safe to operate,” Uselding said.