FORT CALHOUN, Neb. — They say the mood has changed here since this place stopped splitting atoms.
The list of reasons why Fort Calhoun Nuclear Station went offline is long: fears about Missouri River floodwater seeping into the plant; a significant mechanical error that went without repair for too long; a workplace culture gone lax in a facility where precision is required.
But in the 20 months since the plant went into “cold shutdown,” operators say they're finally seeing the kind of change they can measure. They've weathered the flood, brought in new management and are carefully making their way through federal regulators' to-do lists.
They're trying to be more transparent about their struggles and successes by holding regular public meetings. Last month the Omaha Public Power District let in The World-Herald for a detailed tour of a plant trying to get back on its feet.
While there have been a series of targeted restart dates that have come and gone without the return of power production at Fort Calhoun, officials are putting more stock in the latest goal: the first quarter of 2013.
They've built OPPD's annual budget around the plant opening in February. If the restart date occurs much later in the year, it will probably be costly for OPPD and its ratepayers.
Ultimately, Fort Calhoun can't restart its reactor until the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission is satisfied that the plant has fixed its problems and is operating safely.
But Lou Cortopassi, the plant's vice president and chief nuclear officer, said he's “very confident” that OPPD is nearing the point where it can say to regulators: Test us. We're ready.
In the 10 months since Cortopassi has been overseeing the restart work — he was brought in with Exelon Corp., the private company now managing the plant — he said he has seen significant progress on the “restart checklist” that must be completed before regulators give the OK to flip the switch.
“It's an agreement on what are the critical items that need to be fixed,” he said. “But it's beyond that for us. It's stuff we need to fix now, a good structured plan for doing that, and there's the actual physical work in the plant we have to do. And with how all of that is laid out and managed ... I feel much better about it.”
Employees at the plant say the changes are visible, down to the smallest workday activities.
Safety has become a major buzzword. That's the case in the parking lot, where workers are instructed to not pull in too close to the curb, and on the winding pathways in and around the plant, marked by freshly painted yellow lines that indicate where it's safe to walk.
Cortopassi said avoiding the kinds of big problems that led to the shutdown starts with simple, specific tweaks in day-to-day tasks.
“That's why we painted the lines there,” he said, pointing to the ground. “That's the level of behavior modification that we work through, and it helps us do a lot of things.”
Training has been stepped up across the facility, including in Fort Calhoun's control room simulator. Housed in the training center at the plant, it's an exact replica of the facility's real control room, down to the placement of the clocks, the color of the carpet and the feeling of being on a spaceship in the 1970s.
The simulator is crucial for checking operators on their skills and teaching new employees, because the working control room is operated around the clock, whether or not the reactor is hot.
With the reactor cooled off, the hundreds of indicator panels and green and red lights that line the walls of the real control room look a bit different from the way they normally do, said Chris Verdoni, a shift manager.
The operators in the room spend their time doing maintenance work that couldn't happen if the reactor were hot. Just as important, they're ensuring that nothing goes wrong while everyone is gearing up for restart.
“They're doing their job as far as ensuring that the nuclear fuel is protected,” Verdoni said.
The plant's status also doesn't have an effect on security. Getting into the place requires a lengthy process of ID verification, admittance through a maze of gates topped by barbed wire, and passage through metal and explosives detectors manned by guards carrying assault rifles.
Employees who work in areas where radiation levels are above normal carry devices that monitor those levels. And they're double-checked on how carefully they work; operations in areas that could be hazardous are constantly monitored by workers in a separate area with a wall of video screens.
All of the efforts related to completing the regulators' checklist are managed by a team housed in a nondescript conference room referred to in the plant as the OCC — the Outage Control Center.
About a dozen workers sit at a bank of computers, fielding calls to and from people in all of the plant's departments and updating schedules posted on oversize charts on the wall. There's always an operations center at the plant, but it's as busy now as it ever has been. It's up and running 24 hours a day, with workers taking 12-hour shifts.
The rule of thumb is that if a problem can't be fixed within 15 minutes, the Outage Control Center is called.
Workers at Fort Calhoun say many people outside the plant don't understand that when the reactor powered down on April 9, 2011, the work didn't stop. Nobody went home.
The work just changed, then changed again.
From typical maintenance operations that go on when a nuclear plant takes a pause, the focus quickly shifted to protecting the facility from flooding. Situated about 20 miles north of Omaha, Fort Calhoun sits along the Missouri River and pumps in river water to cool the reactor. As floodwater surrounded the plant that summer, there were other problems, including an electrical fire.
But as concerns about safety increased, the NRC put the plant on a watch list of problem facilities and assumed oversight. OPPD had a growing list of things to research and fix, and an in-house team of federal regulators watching its every move.
Once the floodwater receded, the district indicated that sorting out the other matters wouldn't take long. In January, OPPD President and CEO Gary Gates said he thought the plant would be producing power again by summer. A month later, the district brought in a team of 12 consultants from Exelon, an energy company that operates 17 other nuclear facilities.
Bringing in the consultants seemed to make the district rethink its timeline — and the need for outside help. In August, OPPD announced that Exelon consultants would stay and run the plant. For the first year of management work, OPPD will pay Exelon between $20 million and $26.5 million.
Workers say the added level of scrutiny from new managers and regulators has provided an unusual opportunity.
Ben Pearson, a health physicist at the plant, said the shorter, regularly scheduled shutdowns provide time to reassess procedures and learn new skills — but nothing like what you can do in nearly two years. Plus, some of the approximately 650 OPPD employees at Fort Calhoun were hired after April 2011, which means they've had an unprecedented amount of training.
“There hasn't been an opportunity for learning at that level since the construction of the plant. ... You're not going to get this kind of experience in a normal outage when you're switching over in 40 days,” he said.
There may be more time for that training. So far, the NRC has given no indication that it is ready to approve a restart. Said NRC spokesman Victor Dricks: “They have a long list of issues that they need to address, and the NRC has no timetable for the restart of Fort Calhoun.”
But Cortopassi, who has overseen similar restart efforts at nuclear plants in other states, said Fort Calhoun's situation isn't any more or less complicated than those at other plants that have had to fix problems. The key to completing all the tasks and passing all the inspections, he said, is making sure every person working at the plant understands that his or her efforts are crucial.
“You've got to be able to look back and say 'What was your role in recovering the station?'” he said. “And right now, at a minimum, every employee contributes to industrial safety, contributes to human performance. They're all doing work at the plant every day. They've got to say 'This is what I did to help with the restart.'”
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