ROBERT SIEGEL, Host:
Images coming in from Nebraska show two nuclear power plants 100 miles apart completely surrounded by floodwater. The head of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission visited both yesterday for a first-hand inspection.
Officials at the plants assure the public that everything is safe, but critics point to a history of problems and wonder if the facilities are prepared for the rising Missouri River. From Omaha, Robyn Wisch reports.
ROBYN WISCH: Just hours before NRC Chair Gregory Jaczko arrives Sunday, a 2000- foot berm collapsed at Fort Calhoun nuclear power plant sending floodwaters into the reactor's containment building.
Located about 20 miles north of Omaha, Fort Calhoun is already offline for refueling, but Jaczko says it remains safe.
GREGORY JACZKO: What I saw really, I think, is a plant that is dealing with a number of challenges. Despite these challenges, the plant does continue to operate safely.
WISCH: Jaczko said Fort Calhoun is capable of handling an additional eight feet of water. And the Missouri is only predicted to rise another two. Speaking last week, Fort Calhoun official Jeff Hanson expressed confidence in the aqua dam's ability to keep out water.
JEFF HANSON: What they can't see on a lot of the aerial photos that have been taken is they can't see that there is an aqua dam that is around the plant itself and that it's actually dry inside of that aqua dam.
WISCH: But no more. That dam is the one that collapsed early Sunday morning. This plant has a history of problems with the NRC, which last year placed it on a watch list after discovering it wasn't adequately prepared for flooding.
HANSON: So yes, they did find that. They found some areas where we had some penetrations that we did not know about, and then we were able to seal all of those penetrations. So we've been working on this for several months now.
TYSON SLOCUM: I'm not satisfied with public pronouncements that everything is fine, that we have nothing to worry about. We do have a lot to worry about.
WISCH: Tyson Slocum heads the advocacy group Public Citizen's Energy Program in Washington, D.C. He criticizes what he calls a cozy relationship between nuclear regulators and operators.
SLOCUM: Remember that the Japanese are probably the best prepared on the planet for earthquakes and tsunamis. They were just not prepared for the severity and the size of the 20-foot tsunami that overwhelmed and flooded their cooling systems, which led to a meltdown. We can't always account for the worst case.
WISCH: Of course, nobody's expecting a tsunami on the Missouri. And officials have had weeks to prepare. But power is essential, keeping the extremely hot reactor fuel safe. And if a flood knocks out the power, diesel generators are set to kick in. But those are stored on-site, some in buildings threatened by rising water.
While Fort Calhoun is already shut down, Nebraska's other nuclear power plant, Cooper, located about 100 miles south, is still operating. Officials there say the water would have to rise another two feet before they'd shut down, and that could be done in just seconds. Cooper official Drew Niehaus.
(SOUNDBITE OF RUSHING WATER)
DREW NIEHAUS: We carefully monitor the river levels. Right now, we're monitoring them every 15 minutes, making sure that we know where it's at. We don't anticipate shutting down.
WISCH: Water already surrounds the plant, forming standing lakes on the dry side of the station. But Niehaus insists the water will never get inside.
NIEHAUS: The difference in that two feet is a tremendous amount of water that would be required to elevate the river to that level.
WISCH: Many residents around Cooper say they're not concerned about the plant's safety. They're quick to note that both nuclear power plants are big employers in small-town Nebraska.
Meanwhile, the two power plants will be tested by weeks, and perhaps months, of high water. The Missouri experiencing historic flooding is expected to stay at record levels throughout the summer.
For NPR News, I'm Robyn Wisch in Omaha.
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