A Pakistani newspaper, The Nation, should not be confused with the U.S. magazine of the same name, as I originally did.
Late Friday The Nation questioned an alleged news blackout around an incident at the Fort Calhoun nuclear power plant outside of Omaha, Nebraska:
A shocking report prepared by Russia’s Federal Atomic Energy Agency (FAAE) on information provided to them by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) states that the Obama regime has ordered a “total and complete” news blackout relating to any information regarding the near catastrophic meltdown of the Fort Calhoun Nuclear Power Plant located in Nebraska.
According to this report, the Fort Calhoun Nuclear Plant suffered a “catastrophic loss of cooling” to one of its idle spent fuel rod pools on 7 June after this plant was deluged with water caused by the historic flooding of the Missouri River which resulted in a fire causing the Federal Aviation Agency (FAA) to issue a “no-fly ban” over the area.
Located about 20 minutes outside downtown Omaha, the largest city in Nebraska, the Fort Calhoun Nuclear Plant is owned by Omaha Public Power District (OPPD) who on their website denies their plant is at a “Level 4” emergency by stating: “This terminology is not accurate, and is not how emergencies at nuclear power plants are classified.”
So, we have some questions to deal with:
- Is there a serious incident at the Fort Calhoun facility?
- Has anyone ordered a news blackout, and if so, why?
- Is it likely that a Pakistani newspaper relying on Russian sources can better report on a nuclear power plant in Nebraska than, say, the local Omaha newspaper?
As much as we might like to give The Nation a chance at being accurate, how likely is it that a U.S. president could order a complete revocation of emergency safety plans for a nuclear facility, when, by law and regulation, those plans are designed to protect the public? The story smells bad from the start, just on government processes in the U.S.
This is the photograph used by The Nation to illustrate its online article claiming a meltdown at the Fort Calhoun nuclear power station in Nebraska. It shows a flooded nuclear power station, Fort Calhoun we might assume. Is it? Does the photograph show any problem besides the flooding?
The Russian report is too strong, probably. First, there’s no news blackout, as evidenced by local reporting. Second, our American “be-too-conservative-by-a-factor-of-ten” safety standards make piffles sound like major problems. The story’s being filtered through a Pakistani newspaper should give us further pause in taking things at face value.
According to the local Nebraska newspaper, the Omaha World-Herald, the Fort Calhoun facility powered down on April 9 for refueling. Because of the pending floods, it was not yet refired up. A powered-down reactor is unlikely to melt down.
O W-H, Nebraska’s largest and most venerated newspaper, reports on a second problem at a second nuclear plant. Reports on the second “incident” give a clear view into just how careful U.S. plants are usually operated:
Cooper Nuclear Station near Brownville, Neb., declared a “Notification of Unusual Event” about 4 a.m. Sunday when the Missouri River there reached a height of 42.5 feet.
The declaration, which has been anticipated by the power plant’s operators, was made as part of safety and emergency preparedness plan the station follows when flooding conditions are in effect.
The plan’s procedures dictate when the Missouri River’s water level reaches 42.5 feet, or greater than 899 feet above sea level, a notification of unusual event is declared. If the river’s level increases to 45.5 feet or 902 feet above sea level, plant operators are instructed take the station offline as a safety measure.
An earlier story at the O W-H dealt specifically with issues at Fort Calhoun, and the flooding — again suggesting there is little danger from that facility.
FORT CALHOUN, Neb. — Despite the stunning sight of the Fort Calhoun nuclear reactor surrounded by water and the weeks of flooding that lie ahead, the plant is in a safe cold shutdown and can remain so indefinitely, the reactor’s owners and federal regulators say.
“We think they’ve taken adequate steps to protect the plant and to assure continued safety,” Victor Dricks, spokesman for the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, said Thursday.
Tim Burke, vice president at Omaha Public Power District, said the plant’s flood barriers are being built to a level that will protect against rain and the release of record amounts of water from upstream dams on the Missouri River.
“We don’t see any concerns around the Fort Calhoun Nuclear Station,” Burke said at a briefing in Omaha Mayor Jim Suttle’s office.
The nuclear plant, 20 miles north of Omaha, was shut down April 9 for refueling. It has not been restarted because of the imminent flooding.
Who do we believe, a Russian report issued more than 6,000 miles from Nebraska, reported in a newspaper in Pakistan, or the local reporters on the beat?
Photo caption from the Omaha World-Herald: "The Fort Calhoun Nuclear Station from the air Thursday. OPPD was putting the finishing touches on federally ordered flood-defense improvements before flooding began. MATT MILLER/THE WORLD-HERALD"
More, other resources:
- CBS/AP story, “Neb. nuclear power plants prepared for flood, say feds“
- Omaha Public Power District (OPPD) web page set up to fight inaccurate rumors; it says reports of disaster are inaccurate
- Current Reactor Status page from the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) (This page is updated daily, and includes the power output from each nuclear power generating station in the United States; as of June 20, 2011, it’s showing zero output from Fort Calhoun, and 100% from Cooper (see Region 4 listing))
- Emergency Preparedness and Response, page from the site of the U.S. NRC
- NRC tracks allegations of safety problems and other issues at nuclear power plants — take a look at any list and you’ll see that allegations of problems, such as these allegations against Fort Calhoun, are not unusual — sadly
- Update, June 21, 2011: Dawn Stover, a well-qualified science writer, critiques the news coverage of these events at the online Bulletin of Atomic Scientists; Stover notes the questions reporters should be asking, but are not; Stover also provides significant background information to help reporters and the public understand the significance of these events. Great reporting there.
- Idaho Samizdat: Nuke Notes provides more coverage from a well-informed view (the writer purports to be a former nuclear industry worker and insider), for example: “Also, there are concerns because the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) issued a ‘no fly‘ zone over the reactor. (Complete FAA NOTAM image)(large) What the FAA did is remind pilots of the ban which has been in place for all nuclear reactor sites since 2001.” [Dan Yurman is the author — see his comment, below.]
UPDATE, June 20, 2011: Let’s call it a hoax
I don’t think I’m going too far out on a limb to call the claims of a serious accident, emergency and potential disaster at the Fort Calhoun site, a hoax. The Russian report — if it exists — may not have been intended as a hoax, but coupled with filtering through the credulous and gullible foreign press (we’re looking at you, Pakistan’s The Nation), it has risen to hoax level, to be debunked. Sure, you should be concerned about safety and security at Fort Calhoun and Cooper — but you should be concerned about safety and security at every nuclear power plant around the world, all the time. This may be a good time for you to reread John McPhee’s brilliant Curve of Binding Energy. It’s dated — Ted Taylor died October 28, 2004 (was his autobiography ever published?) — but still accurate and informative, plus, any excuse to read any work of McPhee is a great one.