By JOSH FUNK and NELSON LAMPE
BLAIR, Neb. - The nation's top nuclear power regulator said Monday that both of Nebraska's nuclear power plants have remained safe as they battle floodwaters from the bloated Missouri River.
Nuclear Regulatory Commission Chairman Gregory Jaczko visited both Fort Calhoun and Cooper nuclear power plants in eastern Nebraska this week to see how the utilities that run them are coping with the flooding. Both plants sit on the river.
The Omaha Public Power District's Fort Calhoun is the subject of more public concern because the floodwaters have surrounded that plant and forced workers to use elevated catwalks to access the facility. Nebraska Public Power District's Cooper plant is more elevated.
Jaczko's visit to Fort Calhoun Monday came one day after an 8-foot-tall, water-filled temporary berm protecting the plant collapsed early Sunday. Vendor workers were at the plant Monday to determine whether the 2,000 foot berm can be repaired.
"We don't believe the plant is posing an immediate threat to the health and safety of the public," Jaczko said.
Omaha Public Power District spokesman Jeff Hanson said pumps at Fort Calhoun were handling the problem and that "everything is secure and safe." The plant, about 20 miles north of Omaha, has been closed for refueling since April. Hanson said the berm's collapse didn't affect the shutdown or the spent fuel pool cooling.
Either floodwaters from the Missouri River or groundwater seeped into several of the peripheral buildings at Fort Calhoun, but plant manager Tim Nellenbach said all of the areas containing radioactive material or crucial safety gear remained dry.
Jaczko said the Army Corps of Engineers doesn't expect the river to rise enough to cause additional significant problems at either of the nuclear plants in Nebraska.
"Bottom line, it looks like the levels are going to be at a place where the plant should be able to deal with it," Jaczko said.
Flooding remains a concern all along the Missouri because of massive amounts of water the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has released from upstream reservoirs. The river is expected to rise as much as 5 to 7 feet above flood stage in much of Nebraska and Iowa and as much as 10 feet over flood stage in parts of Missouri.
The corps expects the river to remain high at least into August because of heavy spring rains in the upper Plains and substantial Rocky Mountain snowpack melting into the river basin.
Both nuclear plants issued flooding alerts earlier this month, although they were routine as the river's rise has been expected.
The main building at Fort Calhoun is at 1,004 feet above sea level, which is about 2 feet below the level of the Missouri River. That's why floodwaters have been able to get so close to the plant.
The main building complex at Fort Calhoun is surrounded by floodwaters at least 2 feet deep, and employees use an elevated catwalk more than a quarter-mile-long each day to cross the flooded parking lot. But the utility has been able to keep the inside of its buildings and key equipment mostly dry with a network of flood barriers and a number of pumps.
Fort Calhoun workers can remain dry when walking into the plant, but OPPD has invested in about 300 life jackets and a couple hundred pairs of waders for times when employees must enter the water to check a flood barrier or build more scaffolding. Boats are also used to ferry equipment around the complex.
OPPD officials say Fort Calhoun is designed to be protected from floodwaters up to 1,014 feet above sea level - that's about 8 feet higher than the river's current level. And the latest prediction from the Corps of Engineers is that the river won't rise more than 2 feet above its current level near Fort Calhoun.
Jaczko inspected the Cooper Nuclear Station, which sits on the Missouri River about 75 miles south of Omaha, on Sunday. He asked plant officials and the NRC's local inspectors questions about the plant and this year's flooding.
The plant, which is owned by Nebraska Public Power District, remains dry because it sits at an elevation above the river and continues to operate at full capacity. The base of Cooper and its storage area for used nuclear fuel is 903 feet above sea level. The river was 900.2 feet above sea level early Monday.
One of the biggest threats to the safety of any nuclear power plant would be a prolonged loss of electrical power because the plants need to be able to continue pumping water over the radioactive fuel to keep it cool.
A key factor in the disaster at Japan's Fukushima Dai-ichi facility earlier this year was the loss of all off-site power and emergency generators after the earthquake and tsunami struck.
Fort Calhoun has at least nine backup power sources in place, including six different power lines and two diesel generators, which were just tested Sunday after the failure of the water-filled berm.
"There is little to no chance of anything like Fukushima happening here," Nellenbach said.
OPPD officials and Jaczko said the fact that Fort Calhoun has been shut down since April helps make the plant significantly safer during the flooding because the radioactive fuel has been cooling off since then.
"The risk is really very low at this point that anything could go wrong," Jaczko said.
Cooper also has two main lines of outside power, at least three generators on site and a battery system that can power the plant in an emergency.
Officials with the NRC and the Nebraska utilities have said that one of the key differences between the Fukushima disaster and the Missouri River flooding is that the river flooding has progressed slowly and the utilities had several weeks to prepare.