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.
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.
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.
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Water covers a road near Valley, Nebraska, on Friday, March 15, 2019.
Heavy machinery stacks up concrete chunks on the shore of the Elkhorn River at the Q Street bridge as part of an effort to stabilize the bank on the recently flooded river.
Sarpy County Sheriff's Deputy Darin Morrissey rides an ATV through floodwaters in Hawaiian Village.
Omaha Roncalli's Shane Orr celebrates their double overtime win over Aurora during a semifinal game in the Class B Nebraska state basketball tournament at Pinnacle Bank Arena.
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Creighton's Jordan Hovey (5), right, celebrates hitting a home run with his teammates in the 2nd inning.
Nebraskaâ€™s Adrian Martinez runs out of the end zone after a play during spring football practice at the Hawks Championship Center in Lincoln, Nebraska.
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Robert Jones looks around his flood damaged house north of Highway 50, near Louisville,Nebraska. The floor, which is normally a white tile, is covered in mud.
Aurora's Nicholas Hutsell, left, fouls Omaha Roncalli's Alexander Rodgers during a semifinal game in the Class B Nebraska state basketball tournament at Pinnacle Bank Arena.
Lincoln Pius X's Charlie Easley, left, and and Omaha Roncalli's Alexander Rodgers stretch for a loose ball during the championship game in the Class B Nebraska state basketball tournament at Pinnacle Bank Arena.
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Aurora's Kaleb Moural wipes the sweat from his face during the second half against Omaha Roncalli during a semifinal game in the Class B Nebraska state basketball tournament at Pinnacle Bank Arena.
Bob the cat looks on from a basket in a boat after being rescued from floodwaters in Hamburg, Iowa.
A vehicle is stuck in floodwaters near 1st Street and Pierce Street in Fremont, Nebraska.
Tim Rockford, left, and David Bauer, tour the Bellwood Lakes neighborhood which was destroyed by the flooding days prior along the Platte River in Bellwood, Nebraska.
Lincoln East's Charlotte Bovaird practices her shot and she and her teammates warm up in the hallways before the start of the game. Lincoln East played Millard South in a Class A first-round basketball game during the girls state basketball tournament at the Pinnacle Bank Arena in Lincoln, Nebraska.
Elkhorn South's Ryee Gray (40) fights for a rebound with Sidney's Meaghan Ross (0).Sidney played Elkhorn South in a Class B first-round basketball game during the girls state basketball tournament at the Pinnacle Bank Arena in Lincoln, Nebraska. Elkhorn South defeated Sidney 51-37.
Westside poses with the championship plaque with the winning score on the wall behind them after Omaha Westside defeated Millard North 54-53 at Omaha Westside in Omaha, Nebraska.
Chris Saenz of Bellevue works out at FIT IN THE CITY in Papillion, Nebraska.
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The house-made carrot cake is one of the many desserts on the menu at J. Gilbertâ€™s Wood-Fired Steaks & Seafood in Omahaâ€™s Capitol District.
UNO's Mitch Hahn (44), right, grabs a rebound over the top of teammate JT Gibson (0). UNO played South Dakota State in a men's basketball game at Baxter Arena in Omaha, Nebraska.
Norfolk's Annika Harthoorn dives backwards at the start of heat 4 of the girls 100 yard backstroke at the Bob Devaney Sports Center on Friday, Feb. 22, 2019, in Lincoln, Nebraska, during the state swimming prelims.
UNO's Mitch Hahn (44) hugs his mom Kim Hahn following UNO's 85-84 win over South Dakota State. UNO played South Dakota State in a men's basketball game at Baxter Arena in Omaha, Nebraska.
Lincoln Pius X's Katie Stonehocker competes in the girls 200 yard freestyle at the Bob Devaney Sports Center on Friday, Feb. 22, 2019, in Lincoln, Nebraska, during the state swimming prelims.
Jen Freeman, who is training for a 100 mile race, jogs through the snow in Millard, Nebraska. Freeman said that she has to train no matter what the weather.
Mesquite grilled eight-ounce filet with heirloom carrots and burnt end mac and cheese. J. Gilbertâ€™s Wood-Fired Steaks & Seafood serves dinner seven nights a week in Omahaâ€™s Capitol District.
UNO's Matt Pile (40) gets tangled with Western Illinois' Zion Young (1), left and Brandon Gilbeck (52) in the first half as the University of Nebraska at Omaha hosts Western Illinois at the Baxter Arena in Omaha, Nebraska.
Omaha Burke assistant wrestling coach Jesse Peters takes a rest before the start of the semifinals at the CHI Health Center in Omaha, Nebraska, during the Nebraska State Wrestling Tournament. Peters said the nap helps him get through the long tournament days.
South Dakota State's Mike Daum (24) scores a basket against UNO. UNO played South Dakota State in a men's basketball game at Baxter Arena in Omaha, Nebraska.
UNO's Ayo Akinwole (10) drives past Western Illinois' Keshon Montague (22) in the first half as the University of Nebraska at Omaha hosts Western Illinois at the Baxter Arena in Omaha, Nebraska.
Creamed corn with bacon is among many side items on the menu at J. Gilbertâ€™s Wood-Fired Steaks & Seafood in Omahaâ€™s Capitol District.
The UNO basketball team celebrates their 85-84 win over South Dakota State. UNO played South Dakota State in a men's basketball game at Baxter Arena in Omaha, Nebraska.
UNO's KJ Robinson (5) reacts after missing a shot. UNO played South Dakota State in a men's basketball game at Baxter Arena in Omaha, Nebraska.
Omaha Bryan's Ladamien Sturdivant, left, tries to keep a hold on Fremont's Cody Carlson during their Class A 126 pound semifinals wrestling match at the CHI Health Center in Omaha, Nebraska, during the Nebraska State Wrestling Tournament.
Lincoln Pius X's Kara Owens rises from the water as she competes in heat 2 of the girls 100 yard backstroke at the Bob Devaney Sports Center on Friday, Feb. 22, 2019, in Lincoln, Nebraska, during the state swimming prelims.
Hilary Sehring punches the speed bag during an exercise round at 9Round Fitness in Omaha, Nebraska.
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Seventh-grade students from Nathan Hale Middle School are reflected in a â€œThe New Negro Escapist Social and Athletic Club,â€ a portrait by Rashid Johnson while touring 30 Americans, an exhibition from the Rubell Family Collection at the Joslyn Art Museum in Omaha, Nebraska. The traveling exhibit of 30 African American artists includes art with themes of slavery, the KKK and an emphasis on the beauty of black lives.
A man clears the snow from the top of a parking garage located near 10th and Jackson Streets in Omaha, Nebraska, after heavy snowfall.
UNO's Zach Jackson (21) delivers a slam dunk as teammate Ayo Akinwole (10) expresses his approval in the second half as the University of Nebraska at Omaha beats Western Illinois 77-63 at the Baxter Arena in Omaha, Nebraska.
Fremont assistant coach Cydney Granger cheers on Fremont swimmer Lauren Gifford in the girls 500 yard freestyle at the Bob Devaney Sports Center on Friday, Feb. 22, 2019, in Lincoln, Nebraska, during the state swimming prelims.
A pedestrian cruises past a sign of seasons to come in the window of Palm Beach Tan, 5417 S. 96th Street in Omaha, Nebraska.
UNO's Ayo Akinwole (10), left, drives around South Dakota State's David Jenkins (5). UNO played South Dakota State in a men's basketball game at Baxter Arena in Omaha, Nebraska.
Jim Stotts, of Glenwood, Iowa, walks a few laps around Stinson Park while passing time before going to see a movie at Aksarben Cinema, in Omaha, Nebraska.
Chris Kotulak, who is the Chief Operating Officer at Fonner Park, demonstrates how to play a PariMAX's historical horse racing game at the Fonner Park executive offices in Grand Island, Nebraska.
Western Michigan's Ethen Frank (26), Lawton Courtnall (10), and Hugh McGing (16) celebrate a goal during the second period of a college hockey game at Baxter Arena in Omaha, Nebraska.
People jog through the snow at Lake Zorinsky in Omaha, Nebraska.
Gage Beins, right, dumps snow on his friend Jeremy Boyd as they goof around in the snow at Lake Zorinsky in Omaha, Nebraska.
Jamie Kotera, 59, of Springfield, Nebraska, who works out five times a week is seen during her strength training workout with personal trainer Tyler Kottas at Better Bodies Fitness in Omaha, Nebraska.
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