Report: Nuke Fire a ‘Serious Threat’

Tuesday, March 13, 2012 @ 01:03 PM gHale

While the public perception was a fire that broke out at the Fort Calhoun nuclear plant last June was an incident that caused no harm to the public, the reality has federal regulators saying it was a high-level threat to the plant’s operations.

The fire at the idled Nebraska plant broke out after workers ignored warning signs that something was imminent, regulators said.

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The June 7 fire at Fort Calhoun caused an electrical failure that knocked out pumps circulating water in a pool with spent nuclear fuel.

In an investigation released Monday, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) said it classified the fire as a “red” event, representing the highest level of safety threat tracked by the agency.

The NRC report said plant employees failed to investigate the source of an “acrid odor” in a switchgear room that existed for three days, signaling the early stages of a problem.

“A proper investigation may have prevented the fire,” the NRC said.

The Fort Calhoun plant shut down in April for maintenance, and it still remains out of operation. Before it can restart, its owner — the state-owned Omaha Public Power District — must prove to regulators it can operate safely.

“We’re not surprised at the finding,” Omaha Public Power spokesman Jeff Hanson said. “We had expected something of this significance.”

The goal is to have Fort Calhoun station up and running this spring, Hanson said.

In the fire at the Fort Calhoun station, the cooling functions at the spent-fuel pool were out of commission for 90 minutes, causing the temperature in the pool to rise by three degrees. Temperatures never exceeded safe levels, the NRC said.

The Fort Calhoun nuclear plant, which has one reactor capable of producing 484 megawatts of power, was already under the agency’s strictest oversight level because of previous problems. The agency said it would address any performance concerns before allowing the plant to restart.

The plant shut down in April for routine refueling. Then the shut down lasted even longer as the Missouri River, swollen by spring rains, rose to historic levels and a protective berm holding back floodwaters from the plant collapsed.

The river’s overflow surrounded containment buildings, but officials said at the time that reactor-cooling processes remained unaffected.

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