Rumors and the Rising River

As of June 16, NRC officially remains in normal response mode as the levels of the Missouri River rise and flood preparations are underway at the Fort Calhoun nuclear power plant in Nebraska. But behind the scenes there is lots of activity designed to ensure the safety of the plant.

NRC is augmenting its resident inspector staff to provide around the clock coverage at the site. In addition to the two resident inspectors permanently assigned there, four other NRC officials have been sent to site. This includes three inspectors and the chief of the branch overseeing the plant. A roster of other inspectors has been drawn up from which additional inspectors can be dispatched if the need arises.

Officials at the NRC’s Region IV office in Arlington, Texas, have been conducting daily conference calls with the station’s managers to monitor preparations and potential impacts on the plant, which is located about 19 miles north of Omaha. Exceptionally heavy rainfall and snowpack runoff led to this spring’s flooding of the Missouri River Basin that is reported to be the most severe the region since the 1950s and 1960s. Flood conditions are expected to persist for months.

The NRC’s Region IV office has contacted the National Weather Service and the Federal Emergency Management Agency to review weather and river level predictions. NRC also plans to establish regular calls with FEMA, states and local response organizations next week for coordination purposes.

Events at the site are being closely followed by regional news media and Internet bloggers, whose attention was galvanized on June 7 when the plant declared an Alert following a fire in a switchgear room. The fire was quickly extinguished, but briefly knocked out power to two pumps circulating water in the spent fuel pool. This triggered reports that the plant’s spent-fuel pool was in danger of boiling and releasing radioactivity, prompting unfortunate comparisons with the accident at Fukushima.

As the level of the Missouri River continued to rise over the past few days, more and more news media helicopters buzzed the area. This prompted Omaha Public Power District officials to contact the Federal Aviation Administration with a request that they remind pilots of the NOTAM, or Notice To Airmen, in effect since September 11th, 2001, restricting the airspace around the plant. Similar NOTAMS are in effect for all of the nuclear power plants in the United States, as well as other elements of the critical infrastructure, and are meant to discourage pilots from flying too low or lingering in airspaces.

Unfortunately, this was misinterpreted by some of the media who reported that FAA had closed the airspace over the site. This suggested to some Internet bloggers that things were much worse than officials were publicly admitting, spurring reports that the airspace over the plant had been closed because of a release of radiation. An advisory that had been sent by NRC to the Department of Homeland Security was similarly misinterpreted, leading to reports that operators had flooded the containment building to protect the reactor.

The rumors have been as difficult to combat as the rising floodwaters.

Victor Dricks
Public Affairs Region IV
 
Moderator Note: In addition to the NOTAM, which remains in effect for all nuclear plants, in response to a request from Fort Calhoun on June 6, the FAA issued an additional NOTAM tightening, but not closing, the airspace around the plant. Aircraft are now restricted from flying within a two-mile radius of the plant below 3,500 feet.