Thursday, June 30, 2011

saved in spite of ourselves...,

HuffPo | Things could still go wrong, but it looks likely, if not certain, that although the Missouri River floods that have been threatening Nebraska's Ft. Calhoun and Cooper nuclear power plants will put tremendous stress on both the systems and their operators, the immediate risk of a meltdown like those that occurred in Japan at Fukushima is small.

But it's also clear that if these same floods had occurred a year ago, before the Nuclear Regulatory Commission forced plant operators to upgrade safety standards, Ft. Calhoun, at least, would have been at serious meltdown risk. If the floods recede with no further damage to these plants, President Obama could, quite legitimately, claim that he saved Omaha. He probably won't, though, because the politics of doing so would reveal a deeper and more disturbing truth: while the Obama Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), led by Gregory Jaczko, has begun to take seriously the problems it inherited, America's fleet of 104 operating nuclear power plants is anything but safe.

Let's look at Ft. Calhoun and Cooper first. While a rubber berm at Ft. Calhoun has failed, causing flooding around the transformers and forcing the plant temporarily to rely on backup power, current projections for the flood peak are below the level of the newly reinforced levee system. The plant had also been shut down for other reasons in the spring and is not currently operating. Cooper is a bit higher and seems to be at less risk -- although any dam failure or other event greatly raising the levels of the river will mean that all bets are off.

All this is anything but reassuring. The flood level is expected to peak at 1,008 feet, below the current levee line of 1,014. But a year ago, the plant's flood protection was eight feet lower, meaning at 1,010 the main reactor area itself would have been flooded, and the NRC's inspectors concluded the plant would fail: