By David Hendee
OMAHA, Neb (Reuters) - The Fort Calhoun nuclear power station in Nebraska remains shut down due to Missouri River flooding, but the plant itself has not flooded and is expected to remain safe, the federal government said Friday.
The rising river "has certainly affected the site, but the plant itself, the actual reactor is still dry," said Scott Burnell, Nuclear Regulatory Commission spokesman.
The 478-megawatt plant north of Omaha shut April 9 to refuel, and has remained shut because of the flooding, said Omaha Public Power District spokesman Jeff Hanson.
"When the river reaches 1,004 feet above mean sea level, we shut down," said Hanson. "We don't have any idea when we'll be able to start again."
The Missouri River, swollen by heavy rains and melting snow, has been flooding areas from Montana through Missouri. Residents have been shoring up levees around towns as federal officials widen flood gates to allow record or near-record water releases to ease pressure on reservoirs.
The Fort Calhoun station is owned and operated by the Omaha Public Power District and supplies power to Nebraska's largest city. Contractors at the plant have completed construction of an earthen berm around the plant's switch yard and are protecting the plant and other facilities with large temporary structures filled with water.
According to the NRC's Burnell, the added flood barriers will protect the plant even if the river rises beyond where it is currently projected to go. Within that flood barrier, the plant has taken steps to provide additional protection for emergency diesel generators, Burnell said.
Burnell said that all information available to the NRC indicates the plant will remain safe. "The Missouri River flooding has appropriately been accounted for and the plant will be able to deal with it in a safe and appropriate way," Burnell said.
About 60 miles south of Omaha near Brownsville, Neb., the Cooper Nuclear Station, run by the Nebraska Public Power District, remains in operation, providing power to all of Nebraska, including Omaha while the Fort Calhoun plant is down, according to Mark Becker, media relations specialist for the NPPD. The river level there is at 896.6 feet above sea level.
Becker said the plant would not declare a "notice of an unusual event" to the NRC until the level reached 899 feet, and would not shut down the reactor until 902 feet. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has predicted the crest there will likely reach 899.6 feet.
Becker said the preparation for the flood has included sandbagging around the plant. The plant is also barricading off some switch yards that bring power into the plant. The plant also has three back-up diesel generators.
The areas around the plant is flooded, which means employees come in through one entrance. "It's a longer drive in the morning," Becker said.
He said the reactor for the 800-megawatt plant had to shut down in 1993, when flooding washed out roads, which would have inhibited implementation of an emergency evacuation plan.
(Writing by Mary Wisniewski; Additional reporting by David Hendee in Omaha; Wendell Marsh in Washington; Soma Das in Bangalore and Eileen O'Grady in Houston; Editing by Greg McCune)