The Omaha Public Power District has jump-started the deconstruction of the Fort Calhoun nuclear power plant, decreasing both the timeline and the cost of the project.
The utility has already begun the laborious and expensive process of removing 944 bundles of spent nuclear fuel and placing it into 30 storage containers.
Each container is 10 feet high, 10 feet wide and 20 feet deep, with walls and roof up to 5 feet thick, and they are to remain on the plant’s 660 acres between Fort Calhoun and Blair, Nebraska, adjacent to the Missouri River.
Currently, about 270 OPPD employees are on-site, down from 700 when the plant was still operational. After decommissioning is complete, about 50 employees will remain for security and maintenance of the site.
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Tim Uehling, OPPD’s senior director of the decommissioning effort, said the bulk of the $621 million project is scheduled to be completed by 2025.
The storage containers will remain at the site indefinitely — or at least until someone on the federal level comes up with a long-term solution for storing nuclear waste.
No decisions have been made about what will become of the site. While a small portion will be dedicated to housing the spent fuel, the rest is expected to be released for redevelopment or other use. In fact, 120 acres has already been released by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.
OPPD decided to close down Fort Calhoun in 2016, saying the relatively small nuclear plant that started operating in 1973 had become too expensive to run.
When the plant was in operation, it cost $200 million a year to operate.
Under the decommissioning plan, OPPD will be on the hook for security and maintenance of those 30 storage casks. That will cost ratepayers $5 million to $6 million per year, until another solution is found. OPPD is budgeting for at least 50 years — putting the total cost of the decommissioning project at roughly $1 billion.
So, how exactly do you decommission a nuclear plant?
Very carefully, as it turns out, and with lots of safeguards.
“The amount of care is stunning,” said Cris Averett, a spokesman for OPPD who works on the Fort Calhoun project.
A combination of OPPD employees and those who work for contractor EnergySolutions are doing the work.
OPPD leaders decided to go that hybrid route — rather than doing all the work in-house or transferring the site completely to a contractor — in order to use its employees’ knowledge of the plant as well as the outsiders’ expertise.
“No one’s going to know the plant better than the people there right now,” said OPPD Board Chairwoman Ann McGuire. “There’s a lot of people up there who’ve worked there for many years who will be very sad to see it go.”
To understand what happens next, it helps to know how a nuclear power plant works.
The radioactive fuel heats up water, which flows into a tube that enters and exits another water tank. The heated water heats up other water, which generates power. The two pools of water don’t touch — the first one is contaminated, the second one isn’t.
So when the site is decommissioned, all the radioactive items need to be disposed of. That includes all the parts that do touch that contaminated pool. And of course there’s the spent fuel, which will emit radiation for thousands of years.
Items including things like pipes and pumps that touched the contaminated materials will end up at a radioactive waste site in Clive, Utah.
Spent fuel — the nuclear material itself — is what’s placed into storage containers and left on-site. The casks are to be kept above the sustained 2011 flood levels — which reached higher than this year’s floods. Officials say even if it were to flood, the steel-reinforced concrete containers are designed to keep water from reaching the radioactive material.
Spent fuel poses a security risk, both from accidents if it’s stored improperly and from terrorist attacks, said Edwin Lyman, senior scientist and acting director of the Union of Concerned Scientists’ Nuclear Safety Project.
“No matter how quickly you can decontaminate the rest of the plant, that spent fuel is going to be there forever until the country comes up with some alternative option,” he said.
Fort Calhoun is one of 21 sites undergoing decommissioning in the U.S., according to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.
But there is no permanent storage facility for the spent fuel. Currently facilities store it in a pool and some eventually move it into what’s known as dry cask storage, as OPPD is doing.
In fact, Finland became the first country to have a permanent nuclear fuel repository — in 2017.
A site in Nevada under Yucca Mountain was designated in the 1980s to be the first permanent nuclear waste repository, but the project never got off the ground because of political controversy.
Nebraskans themselves rejected the building of a facility in Boyd County to dispose of low-level radioactive waste. The state succeeded in blocking construction of the facility but lost a lawsuit over the issue and had to pay a $146 million settlement.
In essence, the problem with building a permanent storage site boils down to this: No one wants it near them, including Nebraskans.
“That’s the biggest problem with nuclear,” McGuire said.