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OPPD Chief: ‘We Lost Our Edge’ at Fort Calhoun

By   /   February 22, 2012  /   10 Comments

Under intense criticism OPPD’s man in charge of the Fort Calhoun nuclear power plant said today that the utility has no timetable for restarting the plant and admitted “we lost our edge” when it comes to running the reactor.

Gary Gates, Omaha Public Power District President, also told the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, “We let the industry down.”

Gates’ comments followed a series of scathing remarks from several of the NRC’s top officials during a meeting at the commission’s headquarters outside Washington.

NRC officials insist that Fort Calhoun, which has been shut down for nearly 10 months—much of that due to the Flood of 2011—is safe. 

For the first time though the NRC said because of other “significant challenges” at the plant, including a fire in June of last year, Fort Calhoun would have been shutdown even without the flood.

NRC Commissioner William Magwood said issues at Fort Calhoun “sound like a safety culture problem to me.”  Elmo Collins, NRC’s Region IV Administrator, who oversees the Omaha reactor, said he’s wondered “what’s going on in that organization (OPPD).” 

“We are clearly not satisfied with our performance,” said Gates. “We understand the seriousness of these issues.”

Reported by Joe Jordan, joe@nebraskawatchdog.org

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  • Matt Butler

    Clearly, we’ve come to the point where OPPD has become highly dysfunctional. It’s inability to either safely operate, or operate within the envelope of NRC compliance, suggests that from the top down, OPPD is in a state of disarray.

    It is clear to me, that our system of taxpayer owned power is a question mark, and that our cheap utilities are the result of simply “coasting” along. The time to “pay the piper” has arrived. Safety shortcuts have now presented the bill to the ratepayers.

    This is not the first time I have publicly commented that it’s time for the Nebraska Legislature to put OPPD into the hands of private enterprise, where we will see a higher level of competence and compliance. At the very least, the OPPD board needs to be scrapped, with the Governor appointing the board. This way, qualified people will serve, hopefully avoiding this highly embarrassing state of affairs.

    Again, short of selling OPPD, we need a board of directors that can get our nuclear plant safely operational, but my strong preference is to sell OPPD.

  • ToucheTurtle

    “We are clearly not satisfied with our performance,” said Gates. “We understand the seriousness of these issues.” . . . blah, blah, blah . . . .and all those words mean absolutely NOTHING!!!! One has to wonder just how long members of OPPD management have known about an existing issue and exactly how bad it really is. And if they didn’t, who will be held accountable?

    We can assume since there is no designated storage site for nuclear waste in this country, nuclear waste by-products from our two plants are probably stored on site just like they were in Japan. Are they being monitored and kept in an adequately controlled environment? If the folks who were “in charge” at Fort Calhoun have not taken appropriate action to secure not only the site but the waste products, WHY NOT???? This kind of management did not occur over night . . . where has the NRC been??

    We are on the verge of building numerous nuclear plants in this country, and if the NRC is unable to monitor the ones we already have to prevent this kind of danger, then how in the world will they do a satisfactory job when their work load increases??? As with the agency in charge of monitoring drilling for oil in this country, this one appears to have its own issues or we wouldn’t be having this problem. Perhaps this issue will be overlooked on behalf of “Green Energy” . . . do NOT consider the repercussions of building more nuclear power plants: build NOW and just deal wit the consequences “after the fact.” Just keep in mind, once we create this toxic waste, it will be with us FOREVER!!!!!

    And just one small question . . . . how many stories have appeared on the news or in the paper about this disaster-in-waiting? People were “terrified” about the Keystone Pipeline coming through this part of the country . . . and they aren’t saying a word about the possibility of a nuclear disaster!! I wonder which would do more permanent damage to the environment? Is the Bold Nebraska group out there “genning up” support to stop the possible devastation caused by questionable management at Fort Calhoun?

  • realistic

    Your experts on nuclear safety and public power have seized the moment to critcize what they know very little about. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission sets very demanding rules and standards and an infraction of them when really understood most of time the risk is very small. It is like having an auditor in – they don’t leave until they find something. The nuclear industry needs to operate safe and if you support carbon theory, then it is the salvation for our electric needs in the future. Those who believe renewable energy is the answer are invited to try running their air conditioner in August when the wind doesn’t blow much at all. As far as a threat to safety this industry has a very strong record since the Three Mile Island incident –even that did not cause loss of life. If the wind generation industry was regulated in this manner any time one of the turbines failed or even worse caught on fire, they would have to shut the entire facility down and most likely all units made by that manufacturer and then inspect and test to see if there was an issue common from the failed unit to others. If something was found, they would have to replace that item in all unites before resuming generation.

    As to the board this is public power not Governor Power. They are elected, can be recalled and be opposed elections. How is that not better than a political appointment who would promise to support the policies of the then in office Governor?

  • Matt Butler

    “Realistic” makes a good point. Maybe the infractions are small. I’ve been on a lot of airline flights where the plane had to wait, change a light bulb on the panel, and then wait for paperwork. I’m talking lots of tarmac time here. That’s the nature of government regulation and oversight. In nuclear power plant operations, we have to expect that OPPD is competent to operate within the laws and regs they are under. If they aren’t the plant remains off-line. I don’t see anyone electing airline pilots. OPPD has failed, massively, and private enterprise in my book is ALWAYS preferable to a political board overseeing a highly technical operation. I can’t be a judge because I’m not a lawyer. Nuclear physics should have little to do with campaign yard signs. The plant being off-line isn’t generating any REVENUE either.

    Bottom line: The plant is dark, producing no power, producing no revenue, and out of safety compliance with the NRC. It’s failure and incompetence, with the NRC saying there’s no end in sight…

  • Danielle

    I support public power 100%. Selling it to a private entity will raise rates and would raise the possiblity of a Renewable Energy Standard–raising rates even more.

    What makes public power so unique is the board represents us directly. If you think the Board is to blame, then either run or recruit people to run to replace them. If you think management is to blame, then you need to rally the troops to peition/lobby/harrass the board into making management changes.

    OPPD’s customer/owners need to be involved. But, they sit back and when something “goes bad” they scream bloody murder that nuclear is terrible, OPPD needs to be sold etc etc. It’s the same as people who complain about Congress, but don’t vote.

    We OWN OPPD. Much better than an investor owned utility–which, ironically, are called IOU’s in the industry.

  • DANNY

    Matt Butler probably didn’t like the PublicService Commission when he owned the largest Cab Operation in Omaha.

    Guess the PSC should have been eliminated so that a semi-monopoly could charge fares at whatever rate the “free” market would bear?

  • Matt Butler

    Danny- You would be correct. In fact, when I ran for office in 1996, I campaigned on eliminating the PSC. You’re very perceptive.

    Danielle- The rates are going to raise anyway because of the incompetence. I guess you can pay higher rates because of the incompetence, or you can pay higher rates because it’s owned by free-enterprise. I do vote, and I’ll be demanding that elected officials cut our losses quickly. Sell OPPD.

  • Danielle

    I vote as well Matt.

  • Interested_Observer

    Danielle makes some good points. Nebraska is the only state that is 100% public power and residents have consistently enjoyed lower electric rates as a result. We currently have more control now over our public utility than we ever would over an investor owned utility; that we fail to exercise this control is not a failure of the system, it is our own failure to make use of the influence we already have. As a not-for-profit entity, OPPD is beholden to what we as ratepayers (represented by the OPPD Board) want; it is not driven by the motive of making a profit for shareholders, as would be the case of a private utility. As Danielle points out, if we’re not happy with how the utility is being run we should be applying heat to the OPPD Board of Directors because they are in control of many aspects of OPPD, and are in the position to effect any needed changes. That being said, one has to wonder just how in touch the Board actually is with OPPD operations? It would seem telling that this is not the first time OPPD’s nuclear station has been on the NRC’s troubled plant list, nor is it the first time for many of OPPD’s key management personnel. In this respect maybe the ratepayers would get a better deal with a private company, where lack of effective management or leadership is rewarded by repacement, not advancement in the organization. However, even this situation can be handled within the framework of Nebraska’s existing public power structure. If the OPPD Board will not take responsibility for effecting changes in OPPD management then it is up to us, the ratepayers, to take responsibility and effect change in the OPPD Board.

    Privatizing OPPD would undoubtedly raise the cost of electricity for all of us because, as non-government entity, the resulting private company would have to pay more in taxes. This would include not only Municiple and State taxes, but also Federal taxes, which would just take money out of our state and send it to Washington where it’s further out of our control. Lest someone get the mistaken impression that privatizing OPPD would result in a windfall of tax income to local municipalities, OPPD (like all public utilities in Nebraska) already makes in-lieu-of tax payments to the localities it serves, to the tune of almost $28M in 2010. We should also not forget that, as the the term “Investor Owned Utility” indicates, a private utility’s owners will expect to make a profit, and as we all know, that profit will come on top of what it costs to run the utility. Privatizing doesn’t work well without competition, but in the case of electricity one need only look to California (rollling blackouts) or Texas (escalated rates) to realize how good we have it in Nebraska. In spite of our mid-continent location OPPD has been able to run it’s coal fired plants at costs competetive with “mine-mouth” plants (those located near the coal mines). It is also consistently highly rated in terms of reliabilty and customer satisfaction. So why so much trouble with its nuclear plant? If it were due to the lack of finding qualified worker bees, one would think there would be many other plants in similar condition, or maybe that Nebraska is so undesireable a location that it is difficult to get qualified nuclear employees to locate here. It is doubtful that the latter is true, and that OPPD seems to be continually plagued with these problems suggests a deeper, more systemic problem. Every company has its share of bad apples, but as in most companies, apples at the bottom can’t ruin the barrel nearly as effectively those at the top… Maybe the problem isn’t that our barrel isn’t privately owned, but what’s up near the top.

  • ProgressiveOasis

    Every person currently on this board deserves to be removed. None of them deserve to be there for their incompetence!