Bad Math Adds up to NE Nuke Woes

Wednesday, January 23, 2013 @ 09:01 PM gHale

The Fort Calhoun nuclear reactor in Nebraska, idled for almost two years by a litany of problems, is coming under increased regulatory scrutiny because of bad math and Teflon.

The new issues just discovered could further delay the resumption of operations at Fort Calhoun that critics assert is already costing too much to fix and should remain shuttered forever.

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As a result of all the problems, the Omaha Public Power District (OPPD) imposed a 6.9 percent increase in electricity rates this month for customers across southeast Nebraska, largely to finance a $143 million bill to fix some 450 problems and rehabilitate the nuclear plant that closed in April 2011.

But that price tag does not account for the plant’s most recent concerns.

The utility says one of its engineers discovered that bad calculations in the design of the plant that opened in 1973 mean some support structures might not be able to withstand the weight of heavy equipment under extreme stress. Omaha Public Power District officials also are rethinking the use of Teflon to insulate some electrical wires; the utility continued to use Teflon even after experts revealed in 1985 that it can disintegrate when subjected to high levels of radiation. Fort Calhoun is the only U.S. nuclear plant that still uses Teflon in some places.

The utility said they addressed many of the previously identified complications, much of the repair work is complete and the nation’s smallest nuclear plant, on the Missouri River just north of Omaha, should be up and running again by the end of March.

Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) officials said they won’t allow Fort Calhoun to restart until they’re confident its safe, and regulators haven’t set any timeline for that.

“There’s still a lot of work to be done,” said NRC spokeswoman Lara Uselding.

Fort Calhoun’s closure in April 2011 began with routine refueling maintenance, but massive flooding along the Missouri River that year and several safety and security violations forced it to remain closed.

Among violations was the failure of a key electrical part during a 2010 test, a small electrical fire in June 2011, several security issues and deficiencies in flood planning discovered a year before the river flooded.

Items the plant still needs to address: The repair of flood damage at the facility; the replacement of fire-damaged equipment; strengthening the management of the plant; improving the safety culture among workers; the removal of the Teflon insulation; and the strengthening of heavy equipment supports.

An engineer for the utility discovered the structural concerns last spring when the company was looking into putting additional equipment on one support to boost power output. OPPD spokeswoman Lisa Olson said regulators reviewed the design of the heavy equipment support structures before building the plant.

The NRC sent Omaha Public Power District a notice in 1985 to replace Teflon as insulation in the building housing Fort Calhoun’s reactor. The utility subsequently replaced it on wires that it considered at critical risk but left some in places it did not consider a safety concern.

Uselding said her agency’s oversight process relies on nuclear plant operators identifying and fixing problems while commission inspectors scrutinize that work. This system, she said, has not been successful at the Omaha plant.

“Historically at Fort Calhoun, that has not gone well and that is why they are currently under increased oversight,” Uselding said.

Acknowledging the deterioration of performance at Fort Calhoun before the shutdown, the utility signed a 20-year deal with Exelon Corp. last fall to operate the nuclear plant.

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