A First Hand Look at the Flooding

Chairman Jaczko views flood preparations at Cooper nuclear power station near the Missouri River.

The Missouri River usually meanders past Nebraska towns like Fort Calhoun, Omaha and Brownville at a placid 5-7 m.p.h. These days it’s racing past at about 15 m.p.h., and spreading out over the surrounding farmland, turning the rich Midwestern soil into a boggy light brown bayou. And it’s creeping up around the two nuclear plants – Ft. Calhoun and Cooper — that sit hard by the Missouri upstream and downstream of Omaha.

NRC Chairman Gregory Jaczko visited both plants this week and also flew over the Fort Calhoun plant. He was checking in with the full-time NRC staff who work at the plants and the reinforcements the agency has sent to these sites, talking with plant officials and workers, and inspecting the substantial flood preparations made at both plants.

The pictures from the helicopter tour over the Fort Calhoun plant look worse than the situation really is. The plant is surrounded by water, but protected by flood gates, waterproof bunkers and other systems, many put in place by owner Omaha Public Power District as the result of an NRC inspection two years ago that found the plant’s flood protection systems lacking. Now, all the vital safety equipment is safe and dry, despite the fact workers wearing hip-high waders pulling boats laden with equipment walk through 3-plus feet of water around the plant’s perimeter.

Not every nuclear plant these days has life preservers nearby in case a worker or visitor falls off the quarter-mile metal catwalk built to get people and equipment from higher ground into the plant. Workers hauling in gasoline cans with fuel for small pumps pass those coming out with the empties on the catwalk. Nearby sit two huge tanker trucks with diesel fuel for the huge diesel generators tucked safely into watertight compartments deep within the plant.

The chairman talked with reporters at several stops along the way, mentioning what he saw in the flyover and that the loss of an aquadam around the Fort Calhoun site was not a problem because it was a supplement to what the NRC requires, and the NRC requirements protect the plant against an additional eight or so feet of flooding. Inside the control room was a computer monitor reporting on the latest flood stages, showing the river at about 1,006 feet above sea level. The plant under NRC requirements must protect critical safety equipment to 1,014 feet.

Chairman Jaczko also spoke directly with Fort Calhoun employees at their Omaha headquarters, telling them this is a challenge that will be with them deep into the summer. “You seem to be preparing yourselves to deal with those challenges and that’s good to see. In the end, the challenge is yours.”

Press coverage was wall to wall: the calls for interviews from the major networks were non-stop (he did the CBS Early Show and an NBC interview before heading to the airport, CNN and ABC the day before, and talked to the New York Times and virtually every local print and broadcast outlet and major wire service at a press conference that drew about 10 video cameras.)

Outside the two plants, the Missouri is rolling by carrying no less than 160,000 cubic feet of water every second, according to Col. Robert Ruck of the Army Corps of Engineers who briefed the chairman before the helicopter tour. It’s the highest flooding on the Missouri since the flood control dam structure was put in place back in 1952.

The chairman said the visit at Fort Calhoun was instructive. “I don’t think you can appreciate a flood like this and the force and power of the water until you see it up close. When you get down close and really see the flow, you recognize this is not a trivial thing.”

At the two plants – Cooper which is operating and Fort Calhoun which has been off-line and cold for months because of refueling and the anticipation of flooding – NRC resident inspectors are standing watch to keep an eye on the performance of the flood protection systems and the work of the plant owners.

Outside, the Missouri keeps rolling by.

Eliot Brenner
Director, Office of Public Affairs

For raw video of the chairman’s flyover of Ft. Calhoun go to: http://video.ap.org//

Holding Nuclear Power Plants to Strict Standards

It’s not uncommon for regulatory agencies to be accused of being too cozy with whatever industry they regulate. It happens to the FDA, the SEC, the FAA and other federal regulators. And it’s happening to the NRC with some vigor recently, especially since the public’s attention to the Japanese nuclear emergency.

As an independent regulatory agency, the NRC has a robust and comprehensive approach to holding U.S. nuclear power plants to strict safety standards. We have our own inspection and maintenance requirements that have led plants to detect and repair, replace or otherwise fix the equipment, systems or other issues mentioned in recent news coverage. In 2009, for example, the NRC’s inspections at the Fort Calhoun plant in Nebraska showed the plant needed to correct deficiencies in its flood response plan. The NRC increased its oversight of Fort Calhoun while the plant responded, and today the plant is well-positioned to ride out the current extreme Missouri River flooding.

The NRC has also ensured Westinghouse meets existing, stringent safety requirements in that company’s attempt to get its AP1000 new reactor design approved. There are many other examples.

The NRC never wavers from its primary mission – ensuring that the public remains safe during the civilian use of radioactive materials in the United States. The NRC carries out that mission by requiring all 104 U.S. nuclear power reactors to meet safety requirements. We work with professional societies to create and maintain the formal standards that support our requirements.

These professional groups, along with researchers from the NRC and the industry, regularly reassess whether or not standards should change. The NRC only permits such changes if they continue to maintain acceptable levels of public safety. The NRC may also review – and change – its own regulations for a variety of reasons. Any changes are always made for sound scientific reasons and without regard for potential economic impacts on plant operators.

And when problems are found and a licensee hasn’t upheld NRC requirements the punishment can be severe. The Davis-Besse nuclear power plant owned by FirstEnergy was fined $5.5 million for lying to the NRC and failing to follow agency requirements. The NRC kept Davis-Besse shut down for years until the plant’s damaged reactor vessel head was replaced and other required repairs were done. And when the NRC’s required inspections recently spotted degradation in the interim replacement head, the NRC forced FirstEnergy to accelerate its plans to install a brand-new, corrosion-resistant head.

The bottom line remains the same – the NRC sets appropriate technical requirements using impartial professional standards, expertise and analysis; we have inspectors stationed at every nuclear power plant in the country, who inspect plants every day; and we enforce our requirements to ensure the public remains safe. We have a single mission – safety.

Gregory Jaczko
Chairman, NRC
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