Leadership change at Fort Calhoun viewed as major step forward

Representatives from the NRC talked with OPPD officials at a public meeting in Blair Tuesday night. (Photo by Robyn Wisch, KVNO News)
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September 12, 2012 - 2:00pm

Omaha Public Power District’s troubled Fort Calhoun Nuclear Power Plant has been offline for almost a year and a half. And still, no date has been set for the plant to return to operation. Plant officials held a public meeting with nuclear regulators in Blair Tuesday night, where they discussed the way forward under new, private management, and said the leadership change is a significant step in the right direction.

Fort Calhoun, which sits about 20 miles north of Omaha, has been non-operational since April last year, even before the flooding Missouri River surrounded the plant with water. Addressing an audience of about 100 people at a public meeting with Nuclear Regulatory Commission officials, OPPD said the station is getting closer to restarting, but is still a long way off.

A TROUBLED PAST

Graphic by Hilary Stohs-Krause,
NET News

Timeline of events and violations at Fort Calhoun from 2010 to 2012.

“Ladies and gentleman, we will not restart Fort Calhoun station until we are satisfied that our people, our plant and our processes are ready to support a safe and efficient restart,” said Lou Cortopassi, the new Vice President of Fort Calhoun, after a two-hour presentation. “But we are on our way.”

Cortopassi has been on the job since January, and comes to OPPD from Exelon Corp. in Chicago. In August, the OPPD board voted unanimously to turn management of the plant over to Exelon, a private company, which operates 17 nuclear reactors around the country and produces 20 percent of the nation’s nuclear energy supply.

Mike Prospero, Fort Calhoun’s new plant manager, said OPPD now has a “blended team” of Exelon and OPPD staff. “We are learning,” Prospero said. “We are going to be a learning organization. We are not there yet…We have work to do, and we understand that.”

The work they have before them includes a long list of tasks. The NRC is monitoring the plant, as it works to correct a host of problems: issues ranging from general maintenance to newly-discovered design flaws with the plant’s nuclear containment, to rebuilding materials damaged in last year’s flood. On every item in the NRC’s checklist, Fort Calhoun was incomplete.

Tony Vegel, the NRC’s acting director of reactor safety for the region, said the NRC has not yet scheduled a final inspection, because the plant is not ready for one. “For each and every one of these issues, we are going to be doing an independent NRC inspection of the quality of the work,” he said. Referring to OPPD’s presentation, he said, “These are some great bar graphs and I appreciate it helps us understand it. But we’re going to really judge you on the performance.”

But a major point on Fort Calhoun’s checklist is more nebulous than quantitative. It has to do with changing the “safety culture” of the organization. Mike Prospero told regulators the NRC’s Corrective Action Program that was provided to Fort Calhoun as a path to restarting the plant was not understood by former staff. He said the “beliefs and values” of the organization “precluded self-improvement” and the biggest change that will move the plant in the right direction is the new leadership.

Gary Gates, the CEO of OPPD, responded to the audience’s questions on that issue. D’Shawn Cunningham, who introduced himself as a member of Occupy Omaha, told Gates it sounded like OPPD was outsourcing its responsibilities to a private company. “Are we maintaining our integrity as a publicly-owned and operated power plant?” Cunningham asked. “I’m glad you asked that,” Gates responded, “because we want to make sure this is really clear. OPPD continues to own the plant, continues to hold the license to the plant and is responsible for the operation of that plant.”

“We’ve chosen to take a path with Exelon Corporation, which will strengthen our operations,” he added. Gates said as a single nuclear unit, Fort Calhoun doesn’t receive the benefits of operating with a larger fleet.

“Not that we can’t, and we have in the past,” he said. “We’ve operated the plant in excellent fashion, but it’s harder to do with all of today’s environment… regulations and issues that we face.”

Gates said the new Exelon management team will report to OPPD’s Board of Directors, “and ultimately, the authority rides with that board.”

“But your solution was to privatize, yes?” Cunningham pressed. “No,” Gates responded. “We have not privatized any part of OPPD. At all.”

Another audience member, Mike Ryan, asked Gates for a specific amount OPPD has spent so far on restart and recovery costs at Fort Calhoun. Gates said the total costs are still being accumulated, but the plant is focused on minimizing the impact on rate payers. That answer didn’t satisfy Ryan.

“You don’t kind of keep a running tally of how much you’re spending?” Ryan asked. “We do keep our budgets,” Gates said. “We take cost adjustments as we go along. We have numbers available. But I don’t have those.”

Gates added OPPD’s focus is to neutralize the impact on ratepayers, and he said OPPD should know the full cost of the recovery by the end of the year.

But it’s still not clear whether Fort Calhoun will be back up and running by then.

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