More items have been added to the to-do list for workers at the Fort Calhoun Nuclear Station as they try to show regulators that the plant is safe enough to produce power for the first time in nearly two years.
The Omaha Public Power District says it's making significant progress on the lengthy checklist. But OPPD, the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission and nuclear power experts all seem to agree that it will probably be midyear — at best — before the plant can be restarted.
OPPD has already been working on the new concerns for months and doesn't believe that they will slow progress. But after multiple missteps put Fort Calhoun squarely on regulators' radar, a longer list isn't likely to speed an already delayed process.
The district has pushed back its anticipated restart date several times and must keep waiting until regulators have inspected and cleared more than 450 separate items.
Chris Gadomski, Bloomberg's lead analyst covering nuclear power, said the NRC remains “jittery” after the disaster at the Fukushima plant in Japan two years ago.
“They're not going to cut anybody any slack, and they shouldn't cut anybody any slack,” he said.
The announcement of the new concerns comes as the NRC begins a series of comprehensive inspections at the plant, about 20 miles north of Omaha. The newly identified issues on the checklist:
» Concerns about Teflon being used to seal electrical cables inside pipes.
» Concerns about the load-bearing capabilities of some structures inside the plant.
» The potential for failure in a system used to keep the reactor cool in the event of an emergency.
Work to fix all three of those issues has been under way for about six months, said Tim Burke, OPPD's vice president of customer service and public affairs.
For now, anyway, he doesn't see additional delays leading to a need for midyear rate increases.
“Many of those items are in the budget for 2013,” he said. “From that perspective, we don't see any impact on rates from those items that would be in addition to the current (list.)”
Burke said it's too early to speculate about what could happen if the restart is pushed back into the later months of 2013. But he said the district would work to make internal cuts before adjusting rates.
OPPD, he said, remains optimistic that the plant will be fully functional before summer, the peak season for power use.
The district has previously announced several potential restart dates for the plant, beginning last January, when the target was summer 2012. After that came and went, the district publicly announced that it was moving toward heating up the reactor on Dec. 1, 2012. And the 2013 budget approved by the board late last year planned for a Feb. 1 restart.
So far, no heat-up, no restart — and no chance of either one happening — until regulators give their OK. The heat-up process takes somewhere between 48 and 72 hours.
Tony Vegel, director of nuclear materials safety for the NRC's Region IV, which includes Nebraska, said his agency has never given OPPD an estimate of when the plant could be ready. Those timelines, he said, have come from the district itself.
“They've agreed to fix this stuff and fix it right,” he said. “They can say what they want from a plant perspective. But the bottom line is, whatever they're going to do, what's been done, we're going to go behind them and verify that yes, they've thoroughly addressed it.”
Vegel, in town recently to check out progress at the plant, said it's still too early to get a good estimate of how much longer the process could drag out.
Once the 15-person team of inspectors makes a first run through the plant, he'll have a better idea. Even if everything looked good, the NRC would still have to take time to compile its findings, do more research, come back for more inspections and testing, and hold public meetings before taking Fort Calhoun off its list of high-risk nuclear plants.
If the restart work did continue for months — or even years — longer, it wouldn't be unprecedented.
Of the 87 nuclear reactors operating in the United States, more than 40 of them have at some point been closed for more than a year because of safety concerns and problems, some of them twice, according to reports from the Union of Concerned Scientists. In total, there have been 55 closures of more than a year.
Most of those closures have lasted somewhere between a year and three years beforethe plants were ready to restart. But a few dragged on much longer.
A reactor at Three Mile Island, the Pennsylvania site of the country's biggest nuclear meltdown, had a more than six-year outage following the accident in a neighboring reactor.
One reactor in Alabama, Browns Ferry Unit 2, was offline for nearly 10 years before it started producing power again.
Its sister reactor, Browns Ferry Unit 1, has had an even more complex history. It was shut down for a year and a half in the mid-'70s, reopened and then was taken offline again in 1985. It remains in a fuel outage, nearly 28 years later.
The Cooper Nuclear Station in Brownville, Neb., operated by the Nebraska Public Power District, went through a shorter process. It was shut down for nine months in the mid-1990s because of performance and safety issues.
Most of the other plants that have been put on regulatory hold were similar to Fort Calhoun in that they had multiple problems.
“It isn't any big reason, it's an amalgamation of problems that took a while to identify and fix,” said David Lochbaum, the director of the Union of Concerned Scientists' nuclear safety project.
“Without the right focus on safety, things kept getting put off or deferred, patched rather than fixed, that build up to large problems that the NRC wouldn't tolerate anymore,” Lochbaum said.
Fort Calhoun began its refueling outage on April 9, 2011. Missouri River flooding kept the plant off-line, but that was only the beginning.
After inspectors discovered other safety problems, including ones related to a fire, the plant made its way onto the NRC's list of problem reactors. It is one of just five plants that have received a “red finding” — the most serious level of safety concern — since 2000.
The findings put the plant into the NRC's 0350 review system for troubled reactors. It's a lengthy, complex process that requires thousands of pages of paperwork and inspections that get down to the smallest details.
One recent issue discovered at Fort Calhoun, for example, involved bolts that were a few inches shorter than regulation size. They weren't causing any problems, but there was potential — if the area was struck by an earthquake.
And questions about those bolts will probably lead to inspections of bolts not suspected of being the wrong size. If there is a problem in one place, the NRC says, it's important to check it out everywhere else.
And if there was ever a time when regulators are paying attention, it's now.
Environmental groups and citizens are following regulators' every move — including in Nebraska, where a small but vocal group of people attends every meeting, requests documents and often peppers regulators with well-researched questions.
Although OPPD has fallen off its most recent timeline, there is evidence that it is making progress.
Vegel said his inspectors have reported seeing forward movement on many items on the checklist. And the addition of new management from an outside company, Exelon Corp., which began consulting at Fort Calhoun last February and took over in August, seems to have sparked changes in the plant's culture.
“They have done some work,” Vegel said. “They think they have closed some items.”
To date, none of the now 43 items on the restart checklist has been officially signed off on. Vegel said OPPD officials have told his team that they are ready for inspection on 100 of the 450 broader issues.
Lochbaum said that number isn't unusual for plants under regulators' scrutiny, and it's not impossible to wade through the checklist within the next few months. He said it's a good sign that the number of reports that OPPD submits to the NRC every month is dwindling.
That means OPPD and Exelon have probably found most of the problems and are fixing them.
“I'd say middle of this year, if I was betting,” he said. “May through July.”
That guess, of course, comes with some caveats.
“The big wild card is if they find something else, a slowdown that could push back to this fall.”
If that happens, OPPD will have missed a summer deadline, which it has called “critical,” for having enough power to avoid buying any from other sources and driving up rates this year.
Already, taking Fort Calhoun out of the power supply — and funding restart efforts — has been cited as a key factor behind OPPD rate increases.
The average rate increase for 2013 was 6.9 percent. Residential rates jumped by 7.7 percent. The district went more than $130 million over budget in 2012 because of work at the plant.
Gadomski, the Bloomberg analyst, said it's clear that OPPD won't make its most recent estimate of a first-quarter restart, but he's not sure how much longer it could be delayed. If the district is still waiting by summer, he said, it makes several issues clear.
“It first tells you the problems are more serious than they had anticipated, if they're constantly delaying, delaying, delaying,” he said. “It tells you someone's calculator is broken.
“And it tells you you're entering the peak demand period without a reactor for the third year in a row.”
Tony Vegel is director of nuclear materials safety for the NRC's Region IV. A previous version incorrectly identified Vegel's job title.
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