Wind in the Great Plains – and the Flood that Shut Fort Calhoun Nuclear Plant

, Senior energy analyst | December 19, 2013, 4:23 pm EDT
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This week the Nuclear Regulatory Commission approved the restarting the Fort Calhoun Nuclear Station, which has not run since the Missouri River flooded in June 2011. That flood reminded the Nuclear Regulatory Commission of the unmet safety needs of that plant, and helped the plant owner see the advantages of wind power.

Nuclear Safety

Flooding at Fort Calhoun plant

Flooding at Fort Calhoun plant

The 478-megawatt (MW) Fort Calhoun Nuclear Station sits 20 miles upriver of Omaha, and is owned by the Omaha Public Power District. When the Missouri River flooded over its banks, and created a month-long emergency at the nuclear plant, old questions began to float to the surface. UCS has been raising safety questions about this plant, and continued to do so during the two-plus years that the plant was off-line.

Wind farms instead

While Nebraskans watched the planning and spending of $180 million to address some of the safety issues, nearby states were busy building wind farms. Nebraska is in the heartland of America’s windiest region, but has been slow to harvest wind energy. In 2011 and 2012, while the Fort Calhoun plant was dark, Iowa saw construction of 1,458 MW of new wind capacity. Kansas built 1,639 MW of new wind generation in those two years. Nebraska added 246 MW of wind.

2013 has been a big year for wind, though the failure of Congress to maintain a steady policy has caused some investors and developers to pause their efforts. Nonetheless, Kansas is hosting construction of the 250 MW Buffalo Dunes wind farm that will export electricity to Alabama, and Iowa utility MidAmerican has started building over 1,000 MW of new wind farms.

The electric industry is adjusting to the low cost of wind power in the Great Plains, the aging (and eroding economics) of coal plants, and the problems that come up after years of ignoring risks at nuclear plants. In a state where citizens control and own the electric companies, it took receding flood waters to reveal that the old ideas were not holding up in the new reality. The Omaha utility has started to see the future as well. In October, the owners of the Fort Calhoun plant agreed to buy 400 MW of wind power to be built in Nebraska.

Looking to 2014

With the re-start of Fort Calhoun, we hope for an improved safety record, and clear thinking about renewable energy. Nebraska has a set of old coal plants that are ripe for retirement. With the example set by its neighbors prospering with wind farming, perhaps the new year will be brighter in the Cornhusker State.

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  • Rich Andrews

    Dear Mr. Winchester:
    I thought your article on Fort Calhoun costs was very informative. The costs in dollars and human sacrifice was huge.
    In the article I noted the following statement:
    “Thirty-two months is a long time for the plant to be offline. But it’s not the longest outage experienced by U.S. nuclear plants placed in the special oversight program.”
    The jury is still out on the Fort Calhoun Station. They will remain in the special NRC oversight program for the foreseeable future even though they are now producing power. Information that I received on the NRC Blog site was that two plants in addition to Fort Calhoun have been on this special NRC oversight program before. DC Cook (3rd Quarter ’98 to 1st Quarter 2000) and Davis Besse (2nd Quarter ’02 to 2nd Quarter ’05). Soon, therefore, Fort Calhoun Station (FCS) will likely be the plant with the longest time spent under the special NRC oversight program.
    As a former Fort Calhoun Station employee I have submitted comments to the NRC about FCS both on the NRC Blog site and directly to the Executive Secretary of the NRC. My biggest concern has to do with the effectiveness of both the NRC oversight process and the oversight process of the Institute of Nuclear Power Plant Operations (INPO). I consider that when nuclear plants have to be put on a special oversight program, a failure of the regular oversight program has occurred. As you know it has taken almost 3 years for FCS to dig themselves out of a huge performance hole. It has taken this long to correct, in most cases, long-standing, pervasive, and serious problems in the plant’s management, programs, processes, and equipment. In looking at the NRC’s involvement in all this over a 16-year period they only identified 2 violations of NRC requirements that required a written response from the licensee, FCS. FCS identified 8 problems that were later determined to be violations by the NRC over that same time period. These problems were mainly “self-disclosing” problems caused by equipment malfunctions and in one case a fire. My question to the NRC has been and continues to be, “Where were they?!” The NRC inspection process, with over 160 inspections in 16 years, revealed none of the many performance problems FCS staff identified after two significant incidents occurred at FCS in late 2010 and early 2011. I have raised this same concern with regard to INPO’s oversight and evaluation process. I am concerned that there may be other nuclear plants operating that are in a severely degraded state that the NRC or INPO knows nothing about. I have asked for any information from the NRC about any steps they may have taken to answer one simple question. In hindsight was there anything that the NRC could have done differently or better to not allow FCS to get into such a degraded state? So far no answers. I haven’t really expected any since I believe it would be extremely hard for the NRC to be candid with itself since it relies on the nuclear industry for its very survival. Unfortunately, that is probably true of other federal agencies as well.
    Thanks for letting me bend your ear a little. And again thanks for your informative article.
    Rich Andrews