FORT CALHOUN, Neb. — The news jolted Jeanne Knight, owner of the homey Longhorn Bar and Grill.
“They’ve been fixing it up after the (2011) flood, and now they’re going to close it?” she said in disbelief.
But it was true. That’s why three workers from the Fort Calhoun Nuclear Station sat so somberly as they finished their lunch at a nearby table. They said to a reporter that they had been told not to comment but acknowledged that it was an emotional day inside the plant gates.
Omaha Public Power District’s announcement Thursday that it is looking to close its 43-year-old nuclear power plant shocked this town of 900 Thursday, raising concerns about the potential economic fallout.
Some 150 of the 694 workers at the plant, located about 5 miles north of town, live in Fort Calhoun, Blair or elsewhere in Washington County. Businesses in the area also reap benefits from the workers who commute from Omaha and elsewhere.
The Calhoun Oil service station sits right on Highway 75 — not a bad spot for capturing the daily stream of traffic flowing to and from the plant.
“I hate to see anyone lose their job,” said patron Kevin Burns, a lifelong Fort Calhoun resident. “There are probably a lot of guys close to retirement.”
Joel Swanson, third-generation owner of Calhoun Oil, said he holds out hope that the closure won’t happen. Although the closing has been recommended by OPPD’s chief executive, the move still requires approval of the utility’s board next month.
But a local economic development official already was looking at ways to ease the blow.
Lisa Scheve, director of Washington County’s economic development arm, noted that the closure is proposed for the end of the year — not overnight. That provides a chance to sit down with workers, assess their skills and find a way to retain them in the region, she said.
“We have great skilled, quality talent, and we want to retain that talent in Washington County and the greater Omaha area,” said Scheve, of Gateway Development Corporation.
She acknowledged that a number of the jobs — many of the best-paying ones — are highly specialized in the nuclear field. Keeping those workers in the area will be a challenge.
The closure would be the second major economic hit for Washington County recently, coming six years after the failure of Dana College in Blair. The county’s population dipped slightly between 2010 and 2015, perhaps because of the college closure.
The owner of Too Far North, a gift, antique and wine shop in Fort Calhoun, said she couldn’t help but lose some business if OPPD closes its plant. But on Thursday, Sandy Kucera was thinking more about her friends and regular customers who work there.
“Wow. Speechless,” she said. “I think it’s a tragedy for our community.”
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Fort Calhoun — through the years
Oct. 1965: Site purchase is approved
Feb. 1968: Groundbreaking
Feb. 1973: Receives first shipment of nuclear fuel
Aug. 1973: First significant electricity is delivered
May 1974: Operation at 100 percent
June 1979: Applies for federal permission to increase generation
Aug. 1980: Federal regulators approve power increase
Dec. 1993: License is extended to August 2013
Nov. 2003: License is extended to August 2033
June 2011: Emergency declared as Missouri River floods
Dec. 2013: Returns to service after flood outage
May 2016: CEO recommends plant shutdown