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Wednesday, September 7, 2011

NRC increases oversight at Fort Calhoun nuke plant

OMAHA, Neb. (AP) — A federal agency has ordered additional oversight for the Fort Calhoun nuclear power plant because of regulatory violations found last year at the site north of Omaha.

Fort Calhoun will be subject to additional inspections and public meetings, and the Omaha Public Power District must submit a detailed improvement plan, according to a letter released Tuesday from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

The NRC and OPPD both said none of the problems identified at Fort Calhoun represented a public safety threat. Regulators say a key electrical part failed during a test and deficiencies in flood planning were found last year.

OPPD officials promised improvement at Fort Calhoun, which sits about 20 miles north of Omaha on the west bank of the Missouri River.

"We take this situation very seriously," OPPD CEO Gary Gates said. "We will work to find ways to improve and we will seek assistance from other high performing power plants as well."

Besides the regulatory violations already on the books at the NRC, a small fire at Fort Calhoun briefly knocked out the cooling system for used fuel in June. Temperaturs at the plant never exceeded safe levels and power was quickly restored.

That fire is still being investigated and the NRC has not determined the severity of the problem under its regulations.

A team of OPPD officials started looking for ways to improve Fort Calhoun's operations earlier this year. Dave Bannister, OPPD's chief nuclear officer, said some of those changes have already been made, but some measures have been delayed while the plant was shut down this summer because of flooding.

"We need to improve our performance. We know that," Bannister said. "We feel we have a very good picture of what we need to go after."

The violations found at Fort Calhoun are not related to this summer's flooding along the Missouri River.

At the height of the flooding, the Missouri River rose about two feet above the elevation of the base of the plant. That forced OPPD to erect a network of barriers and set up an assortment of pumps to help protect its buildings. But the plant remained dry inside, and officials said Fort Calhoun could withstand flooding as much as seven or eight feet higher.

Workers have already begun removing some flood barriers and disassembling the elevated catwalks workers used to cross the flooded parking lot.

Fort Calhoun has been shut down since April because it was being refueled before the flooding began. It's not clear when it will restart because officials haven't been able to complete their damage assessment, but OPPD officials hope they'll be able to resume operations sometime this fall.

Nebraska's other nuclear power plant, Cooper nuclear, which is run by the Nebraska Public Power District, also received a mid-year performance update Tuesday. The NRC said Cooper had one finding involving a low-level safety risk, so that plant in the southeast corner of the state near Brownville will also receive some additional oversight.

Regulators identified a concern at Cooper about the way certain valves would operate during a fire. The NRC said the concerns at Cooper also didn't represent a safety risk.

NPPD spokesman Mark Becker said the utility has changed its procedures to address the NRC's concern but won't have the valves inspected again until October. NPPD plans to permanently address the problem during Cooper's next scheduled refueling shutdown during the fall of 2012.

Even though Cooper will receive some additional scrutiny from the NRC, it remains at a lower level of inspections. Cooper will be at level two of the NRC's oversight system while Fort Calhoun is moving up to level four of the system. Fort Calhoun and the Browns Ferry unit one plant in Alabama are the only nuclear plants in nation at that level of oversight.

The NRC said 91 of the nation's 104 nuclear power plants are performing at the highest level and operating with the normal level of inspections.

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