Monday, June 20, 2011

Why I'm not worrying about Fort Calhoun (and you shouldn't either)

Given the recent flooding along the Missouri River and my own personal connection to the area, I've been following the news regarding Fort Calhoun (or "Fort Kaboom" as it is sometimes pejoratively known) with a great deal of interest. (Likewise, I'm sure several readers of this blog from the area are doing the same.) And of course, given recent circumstances, some degree of misinformation is to be expected, particularly from those pushing an agenda.

In particular, there have been reports (of rather dubious origin) claiming that Russia's Federal Atomic Energy Agency (FAAE) is reporting that the International Atomic Energy Agency has provided them information on a supposed "information blackout" regarding conditions at the plant, including a "potential near meltdown condition." Never mind of course that the plant has been in a state of cold shutdown (i.e., no power being produced) for over a month (since April 9th), given that it was under a scheduled outage for refueling and maintenance when the flooding began. In other words, a "meltdown" in the sense of Three-Mile Island (or even Fukushima, in which the core was shut down immediately after the earthquake) is physically impossible.

Further, a brief review of the IAEA's website reveals no such alarming news. In addition, any large radiation releases from the plant would be immediately detected by any number of independent radiation monitors not under the control of the NRC, thus making any claim that the administration has somehow orchestrated a "media blackout" all the more laughable. (Not to mention the sheer implausibility of such a blackout, considering the government's inability to control other recent releases deemed sensitive.) More than a grain of salt would be warranted, here.

Other claims include that a brief control room fire has lead to a catastrophic loss of power to the pumps circulating cooling water to the spent fuel cooling pools, inviting the inevitable comparisons to Fukushima Daaichi Unit 4 (e.g., where water levels became a concern after several days following the earthquake). However, the NRC has reported that the fire was quickly contained and that power was restored. Further, unlike Fukushima, while the flooding is most serious, operators are not facing the crisis situation at Fukushima, which involved a total station blackout and a struggle to cool three recently shutdown reactors, all while dealing with the natural devastation from a record earthquake and tsunami. In other words, the situations don't even remotely compare.

The NRC's blog recently deflated several ongoing myths regarding Ft. Calhoun, including the following:


  • The FAA has not "closed" the airspace over Ft. Calhoun*. The airspace above domestic nuclear plants has been restricted as of September 11, 2001 for security reasons. Given the attention on Ft. Calhoun, OPPD requested that the FAA issue a "gentle reminder" to pilots regarding this fact.
  • The brief control room fire did briefly interrupt power to the spent fuel cooling pumps, but these pumps are not currently offline, nor is there currently a danger of the spent fuel pools boiling over and exposing the fuel rods.

Other rumors include the idea that somehow Ft. Calhoun will be overrun by the rising flood waters, thereby washing away the backup diesel generators and producing a similar station blackout condition as experienced by Fukushima. However, several notable differences exist. First, a flood is a far slower, far more predictable process than a tsunami; as a result, operators have had more than adequate time to prepare earth berm flood defenses at the plant. These defenses were erected per federal guidelines well before the flooding began. Second, the backup power generators at Fort Calhoun are in hardened structures (again, unlike Fukushima), minimizing the overall risk of a total "station blackout" condition.

Fort Calhoun Nuclear Generating Station (Image credit: AP)

In addition, Dan Yurman at Idaho Samizdat has also been busy spiking the rumors regarding Fort Calhoun. Among other things, he reports that the earth flood walls provide protection for another 5-foot rise in floodwaters (currently at 1005 feet); the diesel generators have an additional foot of protection from flooding. 

One of the chief things to keep in mind in all of this is that natural disasters aren't something which is simply neglected by nuclear plant operators; in fact, quite the opposite. Given the Missouri river's history, contingency plans against cases such as this are part of the standard operating protocol for any plant like Ft. Calhoun. Given that, my own personal concern is far more focused upon the fact that the reported flooding could last for through August, drastically impacting eastern Nebraska and western Iowa.

*Update: As one reader points out, OPPD has requested additional temporary airspace restrictions over Ft. Calhoun, banning all aircraft in a radius of two nautical miles (about 2.3 miles or 3.7 km) under a flight altitude of 3500 feet. (In other words, low-flying aircraft.)