The Des Moines Register published an opinion piece yesterday, “Nuclear plants need scrutiny, not hysteria“. Well, yes: it’s nice to avoid irrational concern and it’s crucial not to spread misinformation. However, people aren’t worried just because they have some knee-jerk hysteria over the words “nuclear plant” and “flooding” in the same sentence. Rather, one starts to worry when clear information and explanations aren’t provided, when the official story changes arbitrarily, and when the plant apparently had a close call this year, finishing flood preparations just in time for the rise of the river.
Earlier in June, Fort Calhoun completed additional flood preparations that secured the plant for a Missouri flood stage up to 1014 feet. Previously, the NRC inspectors had charged that the plant would lose offsite power and be unable to acheive a cold shutdown with normal operations, should floodwaters reach 1008 feet–where they are expected to peak in the current flood situation. However, given the contingencies of weather and decisions about upstream dam operations, it’s hard for the COE or anyone else to predict exactly how high the water level will be throughout the summer, until this flooding event is over.
OPPD, which runs the Fort Calhoun plant, protested the NRC’s findings about the flood risks before making necessary changes this year. I can understand why people worry, when serious concerns seem only to have been discovered and then resolved at the last minute. In addition, among the repairs made this year were a concrete barrier and water filled berm–the same ones that recently failed. The berm is no longer functional and the concrete barrier was patched, though no information has been given about the nature of the repairs done, what caused the patch to be needed, or how confident we can be of the barrier’s ongoing success in the current situation.
News stories about the breach of the berm have included assurances from OPPD and the NRC that these barriers were not necessary, as the plant had other adequate back-up measures for flood protection. However, on the NRC’s own blog on 6/22, before their failures, the berm and concrete barrier were specifically cited as important parts of the flood protection improvements. When the officials change their story like this, people can’t help but worry: what else aren’t they telling us accurately or in a timely manner?
Another example of a changing story that appears on the NRC’s own website (June 28) is the admission that Fort Calhoun went into a cold shutdown in April partly because of anticipation of future flooding on the Missouri. This the first I’ve seen any claim to that effect. Indeed, whenever I’ve seen a newspaper story mention the April plant shutdown–in reporting on this incident from the World-Herald to the New York Times–the cause always has been attributed to “refueling” and never to flooding. Now, however, it turns out that officials must have anticipated a problem with flooding for at least a few months, a situation serious enough to warrant shutting down the plant. The Cooper plant (the other nuclear plant in Nebraska, further downstream on the Missouri) remains fully operational, though, and thus would be harder to cool in an emergency.
Yes, Des Moines Register, it’s good to scrutinize plant safety. But I don’t see the Register asking any of these questions or even reporting this information. And yes, it’s good to avoid needless hysteria. I’m not popping any iodide pills over these stories. However, the media does not seem to be demanding information or accountability from officials for recent events, and the agencies in charge are certainly not inspiring confidence with their last-minute efforts and changing accounts of the situation. The more it’s left to random people like me to ask the obvious questions that occur to us, the more room is left for confusion and misinformation to spread.