Federal regulators have given the Omaha Public Power District approval to restart the Fort Calhoun Nuclear Station, which has been idle for nearly three years.
The Nuclear Regulatory Commission “has concluded that the plant, people, and processes are ready to support the safe restart of the Fort Calhoun Station,” regional administrator Marc Dapas said Tuesday in a letter to the utility.
The district began the process of restarting the plant Tuesday. It will take five or six days to attain full power, spokesman Jeff Hanson said.
Fort Calhoun, about 20 miles north of downtown Omaha, has been offline since April 2011, when it was taken down for scheduled refueling. It was kept in a cold shutdown as floods overtopped the banks of the Missouri River, then placed under federal control after an electrical fire broke out and a number of safety violations were discovered.
Since then, OPPD has spent $177 million on recommissioning the plant. That work entailed clearing a 450-item checklist of corrective items issued by the NRC.
Federal inspectors spent 23,000 hours reviewing the progress, and Fort Calhoun employees clocked 8 million worker-hours to bring the plant online again.
The district also hired a private consultant, Exelon Corp., to manage the plant at a cost of more than $20 million the first year.
“My thanks to everyone at Fort Calhoun Station who has put in long hours over many months to bring this about,” OPPD Chief Executive Gary Gates said in a press release. “I also thank everyone companywide who supported the safe restart of the plant. All of you have made sacrifices to help make this happen.”
Citing the expense of recommissioning Fort Calhoun, among other things, OPPD raised rates twice after the nuclear plant went down — 5.9 percent in 2012 and 6.9 percent this year. The district did not ask for a rate increase in 2014, however, assuming that the plant would be producing power again.
Federal oversight — and public meetings — will continue. In addition to the two resident inspectors at the plant, three NRC inspectors will stay on site to observe the restart, and the agency said it is planning more meetings to keep the public up to date on the plant's progress.
David Lochbaum, director of the Nuclear Safety Project for the Union of Concerned Scientists, a nonprofit group, said it appears that OPPD realized just how far Fort Calhoun had slipped and took the needed steps. But he said it's hard to know how well the plant will perform until it's running again.
“The only real proof is to restart it and see if that's the case,” Lochbaum said.
With all the time and money that OPPD has invested into the plant, Lochbaum said, the utility will work hard to make sure it is operating safely.
“OPPD has used up its get-out-of-jail-free cards,” Lochbaum said. “If a problem emerges, the NRC will view it more critically and react more forcefully than they would elsewhere.”
This article includes material from the Associated Press.