Fort Calhoun

The Fort Calhoun Nuclear Power plant.

The Omaha Public Power District will permanently shut down its nuclear plant at Fort Calhoun on Oct. 24, according to a recent letter from the utility’s top executive to the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

Correspondence obtained by The World-Herald and dated Aug. 25 was sent to officials at the NRC and the State of Nebraska.

“OPPD has completed analysis of the factors influencing the date for shutdown of (Fort Calhoun),” OPPD President and Chief Executive Tim Burke said in the letter.

The OPPD board unanimously approved a recommended shutdown at Fort Calhoun in June, but officials until now have been able to provide only a rough estimate of when the plant would cease operations.

A previous letter from Burke to the NRC dated June 24 indicated that the utility planned to shut down the plant “no later than December 31, 2016.”

With the shutdown date set, the plant’s decommissioning will kick into gear. That process includes the removal and transfer of nuclear fuel from the reactor into the spent fuel pool. That’s where the fuel rods will be placed for about 18 months while they burn off energy and cool to a level that permits transfer into a more permanent storage facility.

In all, the decommissioning process could take up to 60 years and will cost OPPD as much as $1.5 billion.

The plant employs about 700 people, many of whom will remain at the site while OPPD works through the decommissioning, which also includes the eventual cleanup of radioactive contaminants. The utility is putting together more than 50 separate plans related to decommissioning and is preparing for final shutdown of the Fort Calhoun reactor, plant spokesman Cris Averett said Tuesday.

Once all the nuclear fuel is removed from the reactor, the utility must then certify in writing that it has permanently ceased operations at the plant and that it is surrendering authority to operate the reactor there, NRC spokesman Victor Dricks said.

The 43-year-old, 478-megawatt-capacity nuclear plant at Fort Calhoun is the smallest such plant in the country, which explains in part why it has become financially untenable to continue operating. Far larger nuclear plants with the same or similar staffing levels as Fort Calhoun can better spread out costs. That’s especially true for those with two or three power-generating units. Fort Calhoun has just one.

OPPD’s lone nuclear facility also weathered troubled times in recent years.

The NRC came down hard on OPPD after it discovered hundreds of deficiencies in the wake of historic Missouri River flooding in 2011 that was accompanied by a costly electrical fire at the plant. The Fort Calhoun plant was forced to remain in a temporary shutdown mode for almost three years while OPPD sorted out the problems.

When the plant was cleared to reopen, day-to-day operations were handed over to Chicago-based Exelon Corp., with which OPPD signed a 20-year, $400 million contract.

Records obtained by The World-Herald show that OPPD has paid Exelon more than $93 million, or about $2 million a month, to run Fort Calhoun since September 2012.

Rebounding from that episode cost OPPD hundreds of millions of dollars. Meanwhile, natural gas prices have cratered, sending wholesale electricity prices down with them.

Today, power providers like OPPD can buy a megawatt-hour of energy for as little as $20. A World-Herald analysis of generation costs and output at Fort Calhoun indicate that it cost OPPD about $71 to create an equivalent amount of nuclear energy in 2015.

Contact the writer: 402-444-1534, cole.epley@owh.com

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