The Omaha Public Power District's handling of the troubled Fort Calhoun nuclear station is getting scrutiny from some of the candidates hoping to land seats on the board.
Voters in the district's metropolitan subdivision, which covers the eastern half of Douglas County, will choose two representatives from a field of four candidates. Two of them — Mike Cavanaugh and N.P. “Sandy” Dodge Jr. — have served on the board since 1994. They are being challenged by newcomers Tom Barrett and George Mills in the first contested race either has faced since being elected for the first time.
Both challengers said the shutdown of the troubled nuclear plant, located about 20 miles north of Omaha, was a major factor in their decision to run.
The facility's reactor has been disabled since April 2011 because of safety violations and fears about Missouri River flooding. OPPD officials have said they want to begin warming up the reactor again in December, but the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission must sign off on a restart.
Barrett, an attorney, said he's interested in expanding OPPD's use of renewable resources, such as wind, solar and biomass. But he said he's also motivated to make the district's business more transparent and ask tough questions about what's been happening at Fort Calhoun.
“I think the issues are deeper than the flood,” he said. “It's a huge asset for OPPD, and it wasn't operating properly.”
Mills, a real estate broker who served as a Douglas County Board member in the 1990s, said he thinks public trust in the district has reached “a low point,” and he criticized OPPD board members and officials for letting problems at the nuclear facility reach a breaking point.
“I'm hoping people are paying attention to what's going on out there: Your rates are going up, and the people responsible are up for re-election,” he said.
But both incumbents said they've worked hard to keep rates low and have the experience needed to get Fort Calhoun back on track.
Cavanaugh, a police officer with the Omaha Airport Authority, said the board's approval of a contract with a private company to run Fort Calhoun was an important step. After nearly two decades with OPPD, he said he was well-versed in the company's operations at every level.
“My strength is that I do well with the rank and file of the company, the management of the company, and I'm receptive to ratepayers,” he said.
Dodge, president and CEO of NP Dodge Co., also said the board took an important step in outsourcing the facility's management to Exelon. He said it's important to have board members like himself who understand the business side of running a large utility company.
“When you're talking about a company that has $4 billion in assets and almost a billion in gross income a year .... it's important that somebody who has spent his life in business and management has something to contribute to the board,” he said.
The two people elected to represent the subdivision will serve six-year terms.
Meanwhile, two candidates are vying to finish out the remaining two years of a term representing the north subdivision. That area covers the northwest part of Douglas County as well as areas served in Saunders, Washington, Burt, Colfax and Dodge Counties.
Lloyd Scheve, a bank vice president and former Blair City Council member, was appointed to the seat in February 2011. He faces challenger Mick Mines, who runs a government relations firm and has served on the Blair City Council, as the city's mayor and as a state senator.
Scheve said he also supports Exelon's hiring and believes nuclear power is a crucial part of the district's energy portfolio. He added that he would continue to look at other energy sources, including wind, solar and methane gas.
“We owe it to ratepayers, future generations, to explore other avenues,” he said.
Mines said the problems at Fort Calhoun were a direct result of board members' inaction. He said an OPPD official's explanation that the district had “lost its edge” with the nuclear plant didn't explain what had happened. He said he's interested in sharing more about the board's actions, from writing newspaper editorials to giving updates on Twitter.
“I'm not looking for a boogeyman behind the tree,” he said. “They said they've lost their edge ... and the public needs to know when they do bad things, too.”
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