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

December 19, 2013
Mike Jacobs
Senior Energy Analyst

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.