The sun set quickly on the smallest nuclear plant in the country, situated 20 miles north of Omaha.
About 18 weeks after the Omaha Public Power District board of directors voted unanimously to pull the plug on the Fort Calhoun nuclear plant, operators today will power down the reactor there for the final time.
Energy output at the 43-year-old plant has been waning since Sept. 29, when a “coasting down” period began. Officials expect Calhoun’s output to be near 77 percent of capacity by 8 a.m. today, when a more aggressive process will begin cutting down capacity by about 10 percent an hour until 1 p.m.
That’s when the plant’s energy-producing turbine is expected to eke out its last bit of electricity before going offline for good.
About 1:30 p.m., operators will flip the switch to the nuclear reactor. And so will mark the end to the atomic era at OPPD.
It’s one that began in 1966, when the utility first announced its plans to build the nuclear plant on the Missouri River. By the time the power station was dedicated in May 1974, it was one of only 44 such licensed facilities.
Today, 100 nuclear reactors are licensed to operate by the federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission.
But that number is falling: In 2016 alone, six nuke plants including Fort Calhoun have announced plans to shut down. All but one are closing years before their licensing terms expire.
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Where Fort Calhoun was seen as a viable alternative source of energy during the energy crisis of the 1970s, the run-up to its debut was no honeymoon. What was planned to be a $77 million project more than doubled to a total cost of $178 million.
Still, OPPD forged ahead with what Richard Dugdale, the utility’s president at the time, described as a valiant decision.
“It was bold — bolder than we realized,” Dugdale said of the endeavor at the plant’s dedication in 1974. “It was courageous, and it took all the courage that we could muster as construction proceeded.”
Since then, the plant has accounted for about one-third of OPPD’s total electricity generation. At its recent peak, Calhoun was responsible for 700 high-paying jobs.
But a different force has darkened the doors of existing nuclear plants in recent years.
The glut of low-priced natural gas that has been a major driver in forcing other, far larger nuclear plants into premature shutdowns has also doomed Fort Calhoun. In the last seven months alone, four other nuke plants have been dispatched into early twilight, rendered too expensive to operate because of cheap and plentiful electricity from other sources.
Still, Fort Calhoun differs from these other recent cases: The local plant has been on financial life support since returning from a disastrous spell in which it was shut down for more than 30 months between April 2011 and December 2013.
The utility spent heavily to recover from a historic Missouri River flood, a costly electrical fire and a subsequent laundry list of hundreds of performance-related deficiencies exposed by federal regulators.
The facility recovered, but at a steep cost: The fire alone cost the utility almost $40 million. In all, OPPD spent about $300 million to recover from the prolonged outage.
And since then, the utility has paid more than $94 million to Exelon Generation to run the show at Calhoun. The Chicago-based nuclear fleet operator got the keys to the plant in September 2012 and has been paid about $64,000 a day to manage operations there.
Since then, the plant has operated at levels rivaling any other period in its history in recent months, according to performance metrics from industry standards groups and regulators.
But following the money led OPPD management and board members to decide to shut down the plant. A World-Herald analysis pegged Calhoun’s costs per megawatt-hour at about $71. The industry average for nuclear power operators is $35.50, and the natural gas oversupply has depressed the wholesale price for a megawatt-hour of electricity to as low as $20.
OPPD board Chairman Mick Mines in June put the situation in simple terms: “Unfortunately for the 700 people that are associated with the plant, it’s just not a competitive alternative anymore. From a fiscal perspective, there is no other decision.”