Category Archives: Environment

Fort Calhoun Nuclear Plant Flooding, Part IV

Today’s Omaha World-Herald contains further evidence confirming that officials knew about a future flooding problem by early April, before the Fort Calhoun plant was shut down. News stories since April had maintained that the shutdown was solely for “refueling” and unrelated to the flood, but then on Jun. 28, the NRC’s blog mentioned flooding as another reason for the shutdown. In today’s paper, in response to criticism of the Corps of Engineers for not releasing water from upstream Missouri dams earlier in the spring or winter, the Corps said, “the full flood-control capacity of the Missouri dams was available by late January — and that it was unclear until early April this would be a year of higher-than-normal reservoir releases. By early May, the corps accelerated its releases of floodwater and said 2011 had the potential to be the second-highest runoff season in 113 years of recordkeeping.”

So, it sounds like they discovered the problem later than they should have, if they had been estimating snowpack accurately. Then, once they realized the impending problem, they waited until after the plant shutdown to start increasing the flow of floodwaters downstream. As recently as a few days ago, however, the COE denied that flood risk to the nuclear plant had anything to do with its dam release calculations, which prompted criticism from Nebraska Sen. Nelson. Shortly thereafter, the NRC asked for the COE’s 2009 and 2010 analyses of what would be expected in the event of a catastrophic dam failure.

For once, it would be nice to hear a straightforward, honest version of these events as they happen, rather than having to reconstruct things later based on changes in the official story, and little details that come out after the fact.


Fort Calhoun Nuclear Plant Flooding, Part III

Flooding on the Missouri River in Omaha, NE.

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.

Fort Calhoun Nuclear Plant Flooding, Part II

According to the Omaha World-Herald today, the NRC is asking the COE for its reports on what would happen if one of the Missouri River dams broke. Even though the COE reports no problems with the dams at the present time, it seems completely reasonable that the NRC would want to prepare as well as possible for contingencies. After all, what would have happened, had OPPD not been forced to upgrade its levee just this year?

Fort Calhoun Nuclear Plant Flooding


Missouri floodwaters surround the nuclear plant at Fort Calhoun, just north of Omaha, Nebraska. Kent Sievers/The World-Herald, published June 30, 2011

Finally, some sanity is voiced on the issue of the Fort Calhoun Nuclear Plant flooding! In a recent interview, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers claimed that Nebraska’s two nuclear plants along the Missouri, Fort Calhoun and Cooper, were not being taken into consideration as the Corps determined how to manage dam releases and flooding along the Missouri. Nebraska Senator Ben Nelson captures my thoughts exactly when he says this is “hard to believe”, and that the status and vulnerability of the nuclear plants should be a top priority in the Corps’ flood management decisions.

I’d like to be able to trust the statements coming from the NRC, OPPD, and COE regarding the flooding and the safety of the plant. However, confidence erodes when their stories keep changing from day to day. When I began following this story, word was that the plant was safe because it was protected by a few barriers: a concrete wall around the main electrical transformers, and an inflatable water berm surrounding the plant. A few days later, after the berm failed and the concrete wall was breached and then patched, we were told that yet other safety measures were the “real” security, functioning normally. What will happen when those safety measures fail, though? And has anyone bothered to ask or report on why someone was operating a Bobcat so close to the berm at 1:30 in the morning, resulting in the puncture? Do we have any information about why the concrete wall was breached, or how a patch can manage to be sufficient under these difficult circumstances?

Sure, it’s unlikely that all the conditions necessary to create a serious hazard at the plant could occur, but on the other hand, why aren’t the authorities taking this more seriously than the COE appears to be? Why aren’t they telling us details about the problems that have already occurred, and why aren’t news outlets asking these questions–either insisting on answers or reporting that they aren’t getting appropriate answers? When I hear a decent account of a) what was happening that caused the flood berm to be breached, and b) why OPPD and the NRC were previously speaking as if the flood berm was an important layer of protection, yet suddenly changed to regarding it as superfluous after the breach, then maybe I can trust more of what these folks are saying. Until then? Nah.

The Machines will Continue to Resist Me

I have long suspected that my microwave, bedside clock, office computer, and other machines that are supposed to behave in entirely predictable ways are resisting my demands. In particular, I swear that their clocks don’t keep proper time. Turns out, there may be a reason for this, at least in the future: “A yearlong experiment with the nation’s electric grid could mess up traffic lights, security systems and some computers — and make plug-in clocks and appliances like programmable coffeemakers run up to 20 minutes fast.” Okay, the machines are still predictable, but not by me! I hope they are exaggerating the potential effects, because it could drive me to the edge of sanity if my microwave clock continues to offer its own artistic interpretation of time!

Why does Rep. Lee Terry want to rush through the Keystone XL pipeline?

According to today’s Omaha World-Herald, Rep. Lee Terry from Nebraska has succeeded in getting the House to pass a bill that would move the timeline for a State Dept. decision on the Keystone XL pipeline up to Nov. 1 instead of the end of the year. The bill then requires action from President Obama in 30 days rather than 90. Lee, what’s the hurry? Especially when the Republican Senator from your own state, Sen. Johanns, expresses reservations about the haste of the study and impact of the proposed pipeline route, when water experts on the faculty of your university are concerned that the unique territory makes it difficult to predict the true impacts of a spill, and when some of your state legislators want more time to pass a bill protecting Nebraskan interests.

Even if all of the naysayers are wrong, the pipeline and route are perfectly safe, and Nebraska property owners’ interests won’t be violated, this rush to approve the project makes no sense. Who is benefiting from this urgency? Why does Terry, in particular, care about two months of lost time? It’s not as if Nebraskans will have lower gas prices at the pump that much sooner, so what’s his motive? This is definitely a situation where the cynic in me says, “follow the money”, because there is no other likely explanation for these actions.

(Above: land southeast of Bassett, Nebraska, near the site of the proposed Keystone XL pipeline.)

Sea Turtle on the beach at Punalu’u, Big Island, Hawaii

I took this photo two summers ago. Several turtles were sunning themselves on this fabulous expanse of black sand. Though many stopped to view and take pictures, I was glad that nobody went close to the turtles or bothered them. They lay taking their naps uninterrupted.