Nebraska nuclear power plant still holding out against Midwest floods

In this June 14, 2011  photo, the Fort Calhoun nuclear power station, in Fort Calhoun, Neb.,was surrounded by flood waters from the Missouri River.jpg

Among the places surrounded by floodwaters in the American Midwest: Nebraska's Fort Calhoun Nuclear Power Station. And when I say "surrounded," I mean literally. The power plant is a berm- and sandbag-protected island in the middle of temporary lake. This has not ever happened to an American nuclear power plant before. So far, it sounds like things are going fine (though, of course, the power plant's owners are the primary source of information here, along with government regulators). Overall, there are some good reasons to be nervous, and some good reasons not to be too terrified.

First, on the positive side, the power plant's single reactor has been in cold shutdown since April for maintenance. But that's not a guarantee against problems. After all, Fukushima Daiichi's Reactor 4 was also down for maintenance, and the spent fuel in its cooling ponds still overheated and caused problems with hydrogen explosions and fires. That said, a reactor in cold shutdown is significantly less vulnerable than one that's operating.

Second, on the downside, the power plant got into trouble with federal regulators last year, because its flood defenses weren't up to standards. But, on the positive side, that's ended up meaning that the flood defenses that Fort Calhoun is currently dependent upon are newly improved and inspected—the results of mandated upgrades.

Floods also happen at a slower place than earthquakes and tsunamis, and Fort Calhoun has had time to really double down on preparedness. They've built dams around not only the plant itself, but also the electrical substations that supply its primary source of power. And they've stockpiled weeks worth of fuel for the backup generators, so that in case those power lines go down the fuel rods will continue to be cooled.

On the other hand, all that preparedness is kind of dependent on conditions. According to the Omaha World Herald, The Army Corps of Engineers expects the river to crest no higher than 1,008 feet elevation, and the flood barriers would protect the power plant to 1,010 feet. But that doesn't leave a lot of margin for error. If rainfall becomes extraordinarily heavy again, the river could crest higher. If that happened, Fort Calhoun would be at much greater risk. Hopefully, the container around its reactor would be as watertight as advertised, and the water wouldn't reach the spent fuel pool, which is on higher ground at 1,038.5 feet.

There've also been a couple of small accidents. On June 7th, the cooling pools lost power for an hour and a half because of an electrical fire. And, on the 26th, one segment of secondary flood berm collapsed. The berm was water-filled, and so its collapse caused some flooding in the plant, even though the floodwaters, proper, remained at bay. That accident forced a temporary switch to backup power.

Shorter version: From the information available, it sounds like things are currently under control and that the power plants owners are prepared for the situation they're dealing with. But it's also too soon to know how this will play out, or whether "prepared for the situation they're dealing with" is the same as "prepared for a worse-but-plausible scenario."

Image: Nati Harnik/AP



  1. cue army of black and hippie cannibals from niven’s paranoid-libertarian fantasy ‘lucifer’s hammer’

    1. They form what is essentially a communist dictatorship in Lucifer’s Hammer. How is that a libertarian fantasy? And weren’t the bad guys religious zealots and former military?

      1. Although a fan, I’ll be the first to admit that everything Niven ever wrote was a libertarian wankfest, at least that I read.

        But that doesn’t mean that every single story element was. Recall that they were eventually massacred with chemical weapons by an authoritarian fiefdom.

  2. _so i understand that only one year earlier such a flood would have caused there major problems.
    Those boiler driven by atoms are a permanent nightmare. The picture is horrible, too.

  3. Sooo.. do the workers commute to work by boat? I don’t see any boat parking in that pic.

    1. They do in fact commute by boat. There’s a dry parking lot a little further up the hill. (I live in Omaha.)

      The Union of Concerned Scientists (who are stricter on nuclear safety) said the plant was okay, though that was before the water-filled berm broke. I have heard that they’re going to try repairing the berm and pumping the water back out. The World-Herald printed a list of emergency measures they can take if the water goes higher than 1,010 feet. But I don’t think there’s a whole lot we can do except keep watch and keep working.

      The Cooper plant further south has had a close call, but nobody seems to be reporting on that one.

  4. Fingers crossed for the engineers keeping Fort Calhoun (relatively) dry and hopefully (relatively) safe …

  5. I sure hope things remain as boring as all that.

    Though if things were to get any more interesting, would OPPD be any more forthcoming than TEPCO has been?

    1. OPPD stands for “Omaha Public Power District,” so I’d expect them to behave differently, and better, than a purely private corporation. The directors are elected, and nominally accountable to the people.

      On the other hand, even as a public agency, they’ve got a huge investment in money and reputation in the supposed safety of nuclear power, so there’s still a motive to minimize public relations problems. For years they’ve bristled at any suggestion that nuclear is unsafe.

      I wrote the disaster plan for the hospital in Missouri Valley, Iowa, northeast of Ft. Calhoun, in the 1990s. At the time, the plan for dealing with a radiation release was essentially “get in your car and drive east on US 30.” I said at the time it was a fantasy. I’d be surprised if a more realistic plan is in place today.

  6. What’s the hubbub Bub? For decades the engineers in nuclear power plant design have been assuring us that there is NO WAY possible for a nuclear reactor to leak, or meltdown. If we can’t trust these experts who can we trust?

    1. In reactors designed in the last couple decades that very well may be true. However, the United States hasn’t built a new reactor since Three Mile Island, so all of the safety problems inherent in the older designs are still with us.

      Put another way, it’s like saying modern cars aren’t any safer when all you have to look at are models built in the 60’s and 70’s.

      1. Not quite true. Yes, the 104(?) operating plants in the US are getting older. But the plants aren’t exactly static. Over the course of the last 25ish years, there have been numerous safety improvements. Inspections from the NRC, INPO, WANO, and others are performed frequently, and issues that are brought up are corrected. I’m not saying that nuke plants are 100% fault-free, but they certainly don’t have “all the safety problems inherent in the older designs.” TMI and Chernobyl taught us many things, but we are also learning and improving many things on a nearly daily basis.

        So to take your example, it’s like saying: this collection of cars from the 60s and 70s are safer because they have been retrofitted with modern back-up and safety systems, and we have rewritten the owner’s manual to include more stringent controls.

      2. > it’s like saying modern cars aren’t any safer when all you have to look at are models built in the 60’s and 70’s.

        Please no car analogies. Nuclear power plants can and have been upgraded to newer safety standards before. Its an industrial plant and you can do lots of things to improve it. The problem is that its cheaper to bribe the politicians that set the standards.

        For example, in Fukushima a reactor safety company pitched their plan to upgrade the venting system a couple of years back. TEPCO declined since that would reduce their bottom line.

  7. Correction Maggie. The water levels in spent fuel pool 4 apparently did not fall to the point the rods were exposed to air. Video from inside the pool shows debris but absolutely no sign of other damage ( Tepco now believes reactor 3 was the source of the hydrogen, which seeped into the number 4 building through a common vent. The exhaust vents are set up so that two buildings share the same external chimney. Normally a flame burns off the hydrogen as it enters the vent but the general power failure caused the flames to go out which allowed hydrogen to concentrate and seep into building 4.

    This doesn’t mean there wasn’t any danger. The spent fuel pool was saved by luck rather than design. An adjacent pool containing radioactive waste (irradiated machinery etc) began leaking after the explosion, adding water to the spent fuel pool.

  8. In Nebraska we’ve got a phrase for when the river decides to change course and create a serious problem: ceded to Iowa.

  9. I’ve read other places that cite the flood protection being able to withstand up to 1,014 feet. Why the discrepancy?

    1. The discrepancy is as the river moves southward (downhill), the level of preparedness is against a lower MSL (mean sea level) than comparable preparations further north (uphill).

  10. OK, we’ve got a flooded power plant and a burning nuclear research facility. Don’t they cancel each other out?

  11. The Calhoun plant is a posterchild for how to do everything right. Why? Because it already was in cold shutdown long before the water reached this level.

    The Cooper plant is at full power generation and there is no plan for shutdown. There is also no viable plan for what to do if the water rises again!

    Check it out for yourselves. There’s more than one plant in danger. Calhoun is the only plant you are supposed to look at. The other two are NOT capable of dealing with additional flooding, and due to AGW flooding is projected to continue to get worse, and events are predicted to unfold faster, in the years ahead. Right now the plan for Cooper is to wish real hard and clap your hands real loud, and if we’re lucky the water will go down. This year. That’s the whole plan.

    There will be a fukushima/chernobyl in the USA, because (other than in California) we the people haven’t got the balls to get out there and prevent it. The Bush administration re-licensed all the aging, obsolete power plants the Clinton administration refused to talk to, and the Obama administration is at least as nuke-friendly as Bush was, despite speeches to the contrary.

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