Inspections required for the restart of the troubled Fort Calhoun nuclear station are moving forward but not fast enough to meet the timeline the Omaha Public Power District has been counting on.
As teams of inspectors from the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission comb the plant, the district is calculating how long the process can go on before it has a significant impact on OPPD ratepayers.
Delays past the district's budgeted start date of Feb. 1 mean higher costs for restart work and lost power production that must be replaced by some other source — which would likely trickle down to higher rates for customers.
OPPD officials this week declined to answer specific questions about how big an impact delays would have on the district's finances or on its rates. The average rate increase for 2013 was 6.9 percent, with residential rates up by 7.7 percent.
A small team of NRC inspectors has been working at the plant, about 20 miles north of Omaha, since last summer. That group's presence was one of the first signs that the plant, which went offline in April 2011, was moving toward a restart.
Now, the NRC has sent specialty teams to see if the plant has made enough progress on safety issues, and a larger team is coming in to review about 450 items.
That work is expected to continue at least into April, well beyond the restart date anticipated in OPPD's budget and past its more general target of the first quarter of this year.
That puts the district into unknown territory. Already, the last round of rate increases was blamed in part on restart costs at Fort Calhoun.
In November, Edward Easterlin, OPPD's vice president and chief financial officer, told The World-Herald it was “critical” that the district get the plant up and running by the middle of the year.
“Once we get into the summer, the cost of the outage, the replacement (power) becomes much higher,” he said then.
During committee meetings of the OPPD board this week, a document presented to board members noted that the district had planned for a plant producing energy by this month and would need to recalculate its budget.
“The financial projections will be updated following the re-evaluation of the restart date,” it said.
The district's projections have shifted several times in recent months.
In August, officials said they were targeting Dec. 1 for “heat up” of the plant. Heating the system to the 532 degrees Fahrenheit required to start the reactor does not require the approval of the NRC but would likely happen shortly before an approved restart.
After that date came and went, OPPD moved its restart estimate to the first quarter of 2013. OPPD's budget for the year is based on a Feb. 1 restart.
The district went more than $130 million over budget in 2012 because of delays restarting the plant.
Officials are hopeful the latest series of inspections will be the last before a successful restart.
Lou Cortopassi, the plant's vice president and chief nuclear officer, said the NRC's five-person safety inspection team began its work in mid-January. The broader inspection group will be at Fort Calhoun starting later this month and will be back again in mid-March.
Then, there will be more public meetings and more observations and inspections in the control room once workers begin to heat up the reactor. Cortopassi said the control room observations will likely happen in April.
Cortopassi said he's proud of the work done so far and noted improvements that have shown up in safety ratings. He said the plant's reported accident rate is currently tied for first with the lowest rate for plants across the country.
“If we look at where we're at, big picture, with the plant, we've completed a majority of the physical work,” he said.
OPPD doesn't yet have all the inspectors' findings, but Cortopassi said he expects to see them within a few weeks of the end of the inspections. The report from the safety inspections will be available to the public later this month.
The district may push to get work on some items delayed to keep the restart date from slipping too far away.
“There are definitely things that need to be fixed pre-startup and things we would advocate as a post-startup item,” Cortopassi said.
All of those decisions, though, would require the NRC's approval. The commission has not released any estimates about a likely restart date for Fort Calhoun.
An update posted on the NRC's website in January noted that while the plant had made progress, “it is also clear more work needs to be done,” on issues ranging from flood planning to materials used in the plant. Recent work triggered by inspections has included replacing bolts on water pumps that could have left the plant at risk in the event of an earthquake.
Lara Uselding, an NRC spokeswoman, said her agency's message remains the same: Restart will happen only when inspectors are satisfied all problems have been fixed.
“(Fort Calhoun) has reached this place because we kept seeing they weren't addressing and resolving issues,” she said. “If the NRC does make a decision that they are allowed to restart, it's only after the site has resolved the items on the checklist and the NRC has full confidence they will be able to operate safely.”
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