Troubled Neb. nuke plant reaches repair milestone
- Article by: JOSH FUNK
- Associated Press
- October 29, 2013 - 3:50 PM
OMAHA, Neb. — A troubled nuclear power plant near Omaha is being heated up to test its pressurized steam pipes for leaks after an outage that dates to April 2011, federal regulators said Tuesday.
Nuclear Regulatory Commission spokeswoman Lara Uselding told The Associated Press the utility began heating up the water in the Fort Calhoun plant's power-generating system to 515 degrees Tuesday. The plant about 20 miles north of Omaha will remain heated for the next several days, so regulators and the utility can test systems that are used only when the plant is running.
The step is an important milestone in the Omaha Public Power District's efforts to resume generating power at the plant. Fort Calhoun initially shut down for maintenance, but significant flooding in 2011, a small fire and a series of safety violations kept it closed.
"The whole purpose of this is to check for leaks and see how the system will perform," Uselding said.
When it is operating, Fort Calhoun typically accounts for nearly one-third of the electricity OPPD generates, and the utility has had to buy power on the open market to help meet customer demand during peak periods of the past two summers. OPPD increased electricity rates 6.9 percent in January across the 13 counties it serves in southeast Nebraska, largely to finance the estimated $140 million cost of rehabilitating the nuclear plant.
The process of heating up a nuclear plant to test its pipes is accomplished without nuclear power and is routinely done before nuclear plants restart after refueling outages. In the case of Fort Calhoun, the heat-up process could reveal new issues that would have to be addressed before the plant could be allowed to restart.
David Lochbaum, director of the Nuclear Safety Project for the nonprofit group Union of Concerned Scientists, said it's likely that some new problems will be identified at Fort Calhoun because it has been shut down for so long. But Lochbaum said he doesn't expect them to be major problems and it's better to learn about something like a bad gasket or leaky pipe at this stage of the process.
The fact that regulators are allowing the heat-up process signals progress at Fort Calhoun, which sits on the Missouri River near the town of Blair and just across from Iowa.
"It's a real sign things are coming together," Lochbaum said.
Utility spokesman Jeff Hanson said he would have to check how long it will take for OPPD to learn the results of the heat-up tests.
The utility that owns Fort Calhoun and the Exelon Corp. employees hired to run the plant have already been working to address a list of hundreds of items regulators say must be addressed.
Nearly three-quarters of the items on that restart checklist have been addressed, but regulators are still reviewing many others.
Electricity rates for next year have not been set yet, but the utility has worked to cut costs in other areas of its budget to help account for the extra costs at Fort Calhoun.
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