The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission gave the restart efforts at Fort Calhoun Nuclear Station mixed reviews Wednesday night, saying a significant amount of work remains before the troubled plant can again produce power.
It was the agency's first public meeting since it began a series of in-depth inspections at the Omaha Public Power District-operated plant.
Regulators told district officials they've been pleased with measurable progress on several issues. Among them: the plant's security plans, employee attitudes toward safety, and upgraded equipment. They also matched the district's report that more than 150 items on a 460-item restart checklist have been completed. And they did not specifically critique the district's latest goal for starting up the reactor: late May.
But commission officials pointed repeatedly to OPPD not having problems fixed as promised. They spoke of starting inspections on checklists submitted by the utility, only to find that a significant number of items weren't ready or adjusted to meet NRC standards.
“Yes, they have done a lot of work in the last three months,” Tony Vegel, the NRC regional director of nuclear materials safety, said of Fort Calhoun operators. “But I'll be frank. Some of the work was good. And some of the work did not pass our inspections.”
The plant, about 20 miles north of Omaha, has been offline since April 2011. The reactor was shut down for a scheduled refueling process, kept cold because of flood concerns and eventually put under federal oversight because of a host of other safety problems.
OPPD has been working through a checklist of fixes that cover everything from the type of bolts used in equipment to how workers share information about safety issues.
In a question-and-answer session following more than two hours of presentations from both agencies, some audience members praised OPPD's efforts while others questioned the safety and flood-readiness of the plant.
District officials said they're confident the tests they've run have proven that the plant is safe from the threat of flooding, and that the progress noted by the NRC shows important changes that will ensure a safe operation.
Plant manager Mike Prospero said Fort Calhoun has rebounded from being one of the lowest-ranked nuclear plants in the country in terms of workplace safety. Now, he said, the plant is in the top quarter for industrial safety performance.
“These results in safety and human performance are clear indicators we have the right stuff,” he said.
The 460 items are grouped into categories for a smaller, 26-point checklist that must be approved by the NRC before the plant can restart. So far, none of those 26 items has been given an official OK. Inspections are scheduled to continue through April.
OPPD has set several timelines for restarting the plant. Most recently, officials had been pointing to late in the first quarter of 2013, which was past the Feb.1 deadline used in the utility's annual budget. Officials said they feel confident the new May goal is feasible.
But the NRC remained cautious in its directions to the district.
“Before we do our independent evaluation, you need to complete your work,” Vegel said.
Contact the writer: 402-444-1543, email@example.com