Two nuclear power plants in Nebraska, 100 miles apart, are completely surrounded by water. The head of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission visited each Monday for a firsthand inspection. While officials at both plants assure area residents they are safe, critics point to a history of problems and wonder if the facilities are prepared for Missouri floodwaters that have not yet peaked.
Just hours before NRC Chairman Gregory Jaczko arrived Monday, a 2,000-foot berm collapsed at the Fort Calhoun nuclear power plant, sending floodwaters into the reactor's containment building. Located about 20 miles north of Omaha, Fort Calhoun was already offline for refueling, but Jaczko says it remains safe.
"What I saw was a plant that faces a number of challenges," he said. "Again, I want to be very clear that despite these challenges, the plant does continue to operate safely."
Jaczko said Fort Calhoun is capable of handling an additional 8 feet of water, and the Missouri is only predicted to rise 2 feet more. Speaking last week, Fort Calhoun official Jeff Hanson expressed confidence in the dam's ability to keep out water.
"What they can't see on a lot of the aerial pictures that have been taken is that there is an aqua dam around the plant itself, and that it's actually dry inside of that aqua dam," Hanson said.
But no more: That dam is the one that collapsed early Sunday morning. This plant has a history of problems with the NRC, which last year placed it on a watch list after discovering it wasn't adequately prepared for flooding.
"Yes, they did find that — they found some areas where we had some penetrations that we did not know about," Hanson said. "Then we were able to seal up those penetrations. So we've been working on this for several months now."
Concerns Over Safety
Tyson Slocum, who heads the Energy Program for the advocacy group Public Citizen in Washington, D.C., criticizes what he calls a "cozy" relationship between nuclear regulators and operators.
"I'm not satisfied with public pronouncements that everything's fine, we have nothing to worry about. We do have a lot to worry about," he said. "Remember that the Japanese are probably the best prepared on the planet for earthquakes and tsunamis — they were just not prepared for the severity and the size of the 20-foot tsunamis that overwhelmed and flooded their cooling systems, which led to a meltdown. We can't always account for the worst case."
Of course, nobody's expecting a tsunami on the Missouri. And officials here have had weeks to prepare. Power is essential in keeping the extremely hot reactor fuel safe, and if a flood knocks out the power, diesel generators are set to kick in. But those are stored on site — some in buildings threatened by rising water.
While Fort Calhoun is already shut down, Nebraska's other nuclear power plant, Cooper, located about 100 miles south, is still operating. Officials there say the water would have to rise an additional 2 feet before they'd shut it down, and that could be done in just seconds.
"We carefully monitor the river levels," said Cooper official Drew Niehaus. Right now, we monitor them every 15 minutes, making sure that we know where it's at. We don't anticipate shutting down."
Water already surrounds the plant, forming standing lakes on the dry side of the plant. But Niehaus insists the water will never get inside.
"The difference in 2 feet is a tremendous amount of water that would be required to elevate the river to that level," he said.
Many residents around Cooper say they're not concerned about the plant's safety. They're quick to note that both nuclear power plants are big employers in small-town Nebraska.
Meanwhile, the two power plants will be tested by weeks, and perhaps months, of high water: The Missouri is experiencing historic flooding and is expected to stay at record levels throughout the summer.