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//