The nearly three-year effort to bring the Fort Calhoun Nuclear Station back online has cost ratepayers millions of dollars in overtime pay.
Overtime peaked this year as the Omaha Public Power District scrambled to get the plant running again. Through November, $14 million in overtime and supplemental compensation had been paid to Fort Calhoun employees — representing 20 percent of the plant's payroll budget.
At least six employees earned more this year in overtime than in base salary, according to a World-Herald analysis of OPPD payroll data.
Twenty-two senior nuclear planners were among the highest earners, collecting a total of more than $1.4 million in overtime pay this year. The top three had six-figure salaries to start with and more than doubled their pay, according to the payroll data.
The plant began generating power Tuesday and should be at full power this week.
Overtime at the plant typically runs higher in years when the plant has downtime for a scheduled outage. In 2009, for example, overtime costs reached $6.7 million, or about 11 percent of plant payroll.
Officials said the 32-month recommissioning process — with a price tag approaching $200 million — created unprecedented challenges for the district.
“OPPD management believes that having the nuclear plant back in the generation mix is in the best interest of OPPD and its customer owners,” the district said in a statement. “The amount of additional time put in by our employees has been necessary to keep moving the restart and recovery work along.”
Board members praised the sacrifices of Fort Calhoun employees and said the overtime costs, while substantial, are a comparatively minor worry.
“I'm so proud of those dedicated employees who were willing to put in the time — the whole thing is a lot of money,” board Chairman Fred Ulrich said. “Overtime is the least of my concerns. I'm just happy they were willing to do it.”
Fort Calhoun, 20 miles north of downtown Omaha on the banks of the Missouri River, was taken offline in April 2011 for a scheduled refueling. Flood and fire damage followed. That and serious safety violations discovered at the plant prompted the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission to place it under federal oversight.
Recommissioning was a complicated, tedious and expensive process. Facing down a 450-item checklist of corrective items, workers pulled long hours. Sixty-hour weeks were common.
“Those guys are working all the time — shift workers doing 12-hour shifts are working on their days off,” said Mark Salerno, president and business manager of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 1483, which represents 600 OPPD employees. “They're giving up a lot of their time — and their time off — to get that plant running.”
Twice this year the district obtained waivers on nuclear regulatory rules limiting the number of hours certain employees can work.
The extra work required extra bodies, too. Fort Calhoun employees this year accounted for about one-third of the district's total payroll — higher than typical years — and the district also brought in outside contractors to fill in gaps. Some employees who transferred to Fort Calhoun will go back to their previous jobs.
Progress was slow but picked up in 2012 after the district hired a consultant, Exelon Corp., to manage the plant.
Over the course of the recovery, workers clocked 8 million hours and completed more than 69,000 tasks assigned by federal regulators.
The work paid off. Federal regulators gave the green light last week for Fort Calhoun to start cracking atoms again.
“All of the employees at OPPD have sacrificed much to get to today,” CEO Gary Gates said in a statement announcing the startup. “Our employees have worked incredibly long hours over many months to see repairs and improvements through to fruition.”
Thirty-two months is a long time for the plant to be offline. But it's not the longest outage experienced by U.S. nuclear plants placed in the special oversight program.
Board member John K. Green said he's confident in plant management. He said paying overtime to district employees probably cost less than it would have to hire more outside contractors for the work.
“I trust that they (did) the right thing to get the plant back up as soon as possible and as inexpensively as possible,” he said. “Some of these folks don't have a life outside of work.”
Still, the surge in personnel costs reflects the high price OPPD must bear to fix the plant's faults.
Through November, the public utility had spent more than $181 million on recommissioning costs — $52 million more than previous cost estimates provided to The World-Herald.
That total includes an undisclosed sum paid to Exelon. The district considers that information confidential and declined a World-Herald request for more information about the contract.
OPPD executives acknowledged that earlier repair estimates included only personnel, operation and maintenance costs, not the tens of millions of dollars in capital expenses.
The district plans to amortize the personnel, operation and maintenance costs over 10 years, beginning next year.
Those costs are factored into the rate structure and will not result in a future rate increase, said OPPD spokeswoman Paula Lukowski. Electricity rates went up 5.9 percent in 2012 and 6.9 percent this year.
|meter kept ticking|
|* non-outage year ^ through November Source: OPPD|