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Nuclear Catastrophe Imminent in Nebraska?

When I wrote last week about the Nebraska reactor surrounded by floodwaters I, like most, still considered it a highly remote possibility of cataclysm.

Upon further investigation, it seems much more likely now. The New York Times has exposed some major criminal negligence and game playing with the safety of the nation by the plant’s operator. Peter Behr’s June 24th report examines what we’ve been told vs. what’s there on the ground at Fort Calhoun’s nuclear power station. This is truly frightening with water levels approaching the 1007 ft. above sea level mark.

The “aqua berm” collapsed on Sunday, and nothing holds back the waters but random chance at this point.

The Ft. Calhoun reactor was repeatedly reported to be in “cold” shutdown, with an endless supply of happy talk in the press about how safe the situation remains. Not one of these reports gives the actual temperature inside the reactor. “Cold” is a relative term when dealing wtih nuclear reactors.

A June 22 Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) press release inspires no confidence whatsoever:

“If there is a complete loss of power on site temporary pumps that run on gas can circulate cooling water through the spent fuel pool and reactor core.”

And reactor core? But I thought it was in “cold shutdown?” Why would that be necessary? The NRC release avoids the word “cold,” and merely restates the term “shutdown.”

The Omaha World Herald offers another clue:

“The NRC says its inspectors were at the plant when the berm failed and have confirmed that the flooding has had no impact on the reactor shutdown cooling or the spent fuel pool cooling.” (Sam Womack, June 26)

The term “reactor shutdown cooling” implies it is not quite “cold” but requiring cooling still.

In an outstanding bit of hubris, the second threatened plant at Cooper is still operating at “full power.” It’s as if some are incapable of learning any lessons whatsoever.

CNN — and almost all other news sources — is still reporting the claims of the Omaha Public Power District (OPPD) unquestioningly:

“The [Ft. Calhoun] plant is designed to withstand waters up to 1,014 feet above mean sea level, according to the OPPD.”

That reassuring number ignores quite a bit. In the end it may prove to be the equivalent of the TEPCO assurances and the Japanese Government’s claims that no meltdowns had occured.

“But a year ago, those new defenses were not in place, and the plant’s hard barriers could have failed against a 1,010-foot flood … at flooding levels above 1,008 feet, the plant “would experience a loss of offsite power and loss of intake structure” (NYT)

The NRC gave the operator OPPD a wristslap last October 6 to try and force some improvements of “substatntal importance” to the facility. The OPPD predictably stalled and tried to fight spending any money on improvements up through this year.

The plot thickened back in the 1990s, where a series of floods threatened the area. The Army Corps of Engineers warned the plant operator to increase its defenses by at least 3 feet, back in 2003. The plant however did not “properly act” on the “deficiencies.” No surprises there.

When a senior nuclear investigator for NRC was asked how these situations can go on so long with no meaningful action taken to protect the public from disaster, Gerond George answered, “We only sample certain parts of their design basis…” This admission reveals gaping holes at the NRC.

Now it gets ugly. The plant was not actually “designed” for the 1014 ft flood level at all. Whether sufficient “improvements” to the original design have been implemented properly is anyone’s guess. The plant was originally created to:

“The precise level — 1,009.5 feet — is written into the plant’s operating licenses as a flooding ‘design basis’ threat that the plant must be guarded against.” (NYT)

Here’s the Omaha Public Power’s solution to historic floodwaters lapping at their reactor:

“OPPD planned to extend the barrier to 1,014 feet by stacking sandbags on top of some steel floodgates that protected the auxiliary building, and to use more sandbags to safeguard the water intake structure and its essential cooling water pumps. “

You can’t make this stuff up.

Yes, there’s a reactor at Diablo Canyon in Southern California near an earthquake fault and designed magnitudes short of what could be unleashed there. Yes, they drilled so far below the Gulf of Mexico that they couldn’t plug a leak until the Gulf was thick with oil and toxins. And yes, people in charge of the public safety at a Nebraska nuclear reactor thought piling up sandbags five feet high would safeguard against massive flooding.

These are the same geniuses who allegedly have performed the upgrades as instructed by NRC, just this year, to reluctantly fortify the plant against raging floodwaters.

I won’t be touring the site personally.

The OPPD remains out of jail and in control of the situation. Its spokesman Michael Jones explained:

“We presented our analysis to [NRC] which we felt indicated that the design basis [for the flooding threat] should remain 1,009 feet,” rather than 1,014 feet, he said.” (NYT)

The current river level is just below 1007 feet.

“At 1,008.5 feet, the technical support center used by emergency technicians would have been inundated… At 1,010 feet, water would begin to enter the auxiliary building, “shorting power and submerging pumps. The plant could then experience a station blackout with core damage estimated within 15 to 18 hours…” (NYT)

The OPPD still clung to the absurdity that their fire truck would simply pump out the auxiliary building. That’s their ace in the hole, apparently. One can picture Slim Pickens at the conclusion of Dr. Strangelove riding the nuclear warhead down and proudly waving his Stetson about with a victorious holler.

The NRC, it was reported deadpan, found that “it was not clear how workers could operate a crane to lift the fire truck into position if outside power were lost.”

The Times waited until the end of the two page story to finally let the hammer drop:

“The NRC has not completed its evaluation of the new defenses installed at Fort Calhoun…”

The plant has not actually passed inspection, nor was it originally designed to handle the current reality. Its operator is criminally negligent in the extreme and incompetent also in the extreme. The operator has clearly fought the very safety improvements that are now desperately needed to hold back the river and avert a possible full meltdown a la Fukushima.

The age of nuclear power should be swiftly coming to an end. Do you really trust your family’s lives to the sandbag plan? To the men who fight any reasonable action to make the nuclear reactors they have been entrusted with as safe as possible?

It’s an indefensible industry. The situation is profit vs. public safety. The latter stands no chance over the long term.

Joe Giambrone is a filmmaker and author of Hell of a Deal: a Supernatural Satire. He edits the Political Film Blog. He be reached at: polfilmblog at gmail.

 

 

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