Less than a week after the newest U.S. nuclear reactor entered commercial service, one of the oldest nuclear reactors in the U.S.. the Ft Calhoun Station (FCS), shut down for good. Completed in 1974 for a total cost of less than $200 million – still twice the estimated cost – the plant has had its ups and downs.
FCS was done in by a variety of factors, including rising costs for all U.S. nuclear plants imposed as a result of 9/11 and Fukushima, low-priced natural gas, zero marginal cost wind whose capital costs are 30% or more paid by government entities with taxpayer dollars, a serious threat to the plant from an extreme flood of the Missouri River, operational issues exposed during the aftermath of the flood that resulted in a 3-year long shutdown and management challenges that resulted in a decision to hire Exelon — at a cost of $2 million per month — to manage the plant.
It appears that there was no effort to find a buyer for the plant. The plant owner is the Omaha Public Power District (OPPD). The plant and its transmission lines are inside the territory that OPPD has been assigned by the state of Nebraska. No other owner would have the ability — without a change in state law — to move the output from the facility to the market. Without any path to customers, no other owner would consider buying the facility.
Other factors that would discourage rational potential buyers is the fact that OPPD, which had invested in extending the plant’s operating life through 2033, was planning to collect the remainder of the unit’s required decommissioning funds gradually over the remaining life.
The plant’s decommissioning fund is about $800 million short of the expected $1.2 billion cost to fully decommission the plant. As a public power district with captive customers, OPPD will be able to continue collecting decommissioning funds from its ratepayers. No other purchaser would have been able to do that.
Finally, the plant’s staff was employed by OPPD; many of them have vested interests in pension plans from the company. They would therefore carry those liabilities if the plant had been purchased by another entity that wanted to retain the existing staff.
Rapid Progress From Decision To Action
Unlike Vermont Yankee, it does not appear that there was any active opposition to the continued operation of the plant and there was no pressure from the state to encourage it to shut down.
Unlike the plants in upstate New York, there was also no concerted or coordinated effort to save the plant. That might be because the plant is not as locally vital, but it was also because there was almost no time between the announcement that the owners were considering closure and when they made the final decision to close at the end of the current operating cycle.
Employees who spoke on the condition of anonymity told me about the surprising speed with which the decisions were made apparent. Outage planners were deep into the usual steps done in preparation for a refueling outage. Apparently, replacement fuel fabrication had already begun when the announcement was made.
There was only 12 hours between the time that news reports and rumors began circulating and the all hands decision-announcement meeting. That meeting itself was rather surprising since it included a complete work stoppage, even of work that had just been approved during the morning production meeting.
Effect On Operating Fleet And Power Grid
The total count of operational reactors in the U.S., which had just re-entered triple digits, is now back to 99. That number is not yet completely official, but it appears that the last play has been run and the clock is ticking towards 0:00.
There is still a little bit of physical work to do to put Ft. Calhoun Station into the de-fueled condition that enables a change in the plant’s license from operating to “possession only.”
After the fuel is put into the storage pool for cooling, a single-page letter will certify to the NRC that operations have permanently ceased and requesting the license amendment.
Once the NRC has docketed and approved the license amendment request and change the plant operating license to one approved for possession only, the annual fee will drop from $4.8 million to $197,000. That license amendment is equivalent to a reactor death certificate. No US reactor that has entered the possession only status has ever obtained permission to start up again.
According to the information released by OPPD, there is plenty of electricity available to make up for the lost power output from FCS. Wind energy is often available at a very low price, and there is adequate capacity from nearby coal and natural gas plants to fill in the gaps when the wind isn’t blowing. It will be possible in hindsight to compute the emissions effect of closing FCS, but it’s difficult to predict with much precision now.
Effect On The Local Community
Unlike some of the nuclear plants that have closed recently — specifically Kewaunee and Vermont Yankee — FCS isn’t in a particularly remote or economically depressed area. It’s less than half an hour from downtown Omaha and probably just a little further from downtown Council Bluffs. Both of those mid-sized metropolitan areas have the ability to absorb the impact of losing a modest sized electricity factory.
When I visited Ft Calhoun, the namesake town, I found a tidy little downtown with a couple of restaurants an insurance agency, a real estate office, a regional history museum and a combination town hall/library.
I was favorably impressed when I entered the Rustic Inn and even more impressed after I had been served. The food was good and the portions appropriate for a farming community. The waitresses said they were a little sad that the plant was closing, but also said that they did not think a high portion of their customers were associated with the facility.
At the Ft. Calhoun town hall, the ladies on duty expressed sadness that the plant was closing. Both of them were local women who said that they knew several people who had worked at the plant, but they didn’t know anyone who was really concerned about finding replacement employment. They weren’t sure, but did not think that the plant paid any property taxes or impact fees to Ft Calhoun. They said they thought it was actually in the town of Blair, which is just about as far from the gate to the north as Ft Calhoun is to the south.
Why Mourn For The Loss Of FCS
Even without the kinds of substantial impact caused by the loss of other nuclear facilities, there are still reasons to regret the permanent, premature loss of FCS.
Many of the major components of the plant have already been replaced or refurbished in anticipation of another couple of decades of operation.
The plant was capable of supplying 478 MW of electricity around the clock without producing a gram of CO2 during operation. FCS was producing between 3 and 4 million megawatt-hours of emission-free electricity each year.
If that amount of electricity is produced by burning natural gas in a modern plant, it would result in the dumping of 1.5 – 2 million tons of CO2/year. At the 4.7 tons/year rate the US EPA uses to represent a typical passenger car, closing FCS is equivalent to adding 300,000 to 400,000 cars to the nation’s roads.
Up until a couple of years ago, OPPD was seriously pursuing a power uprate that would have raised the plant’s productivity and allowed it to have nearly 20% more power to sell. The uprate plan was far enough advanced that the needed new high-pressure steam turbine has already been delivered and is sitting inside the building.
The plant’s site is large — 660 acres — and favorable for a nuclear power plant. Even though the operating unit was located close enough to the river and on low enough ground that it was seriously threatened by an extreme flood, there is high ground just a few hundred yards away. The plant is surrounded on three sides by land that is naturally going to remain at a low population density; it is productive farmland in an area whose population is not skyrocketing. The fourth side is a major river.
There was a time in the mid-1970s, soon after the current FCS was completed, when the Omaha Public Power District began serious planning and initial contracting for a second unit that would have had a capacity exceeding 1000 MWe. The site is fully capable of expansion and there is still a strong demand for reliable electricity in the area.
However, without some monetary reward provided for making sure that the electricity is produced without any air pollution or CO2 production and without a reversal in the “cost is no object” and “no safe dose” philosophies that govern regulation of nuclear energy, there is no way for a small nuclear power plant using 1960s vintage technology to compete against lower cost, lower quality alternatives.
The small modular reactors that are under development have a shot at being competitive because they are being designed to require fewer operators, a reduced security staff, fewer health physicists, reduced maintenance, lower cost spare parts and easier operations and training.
FCS, unless a miracle happens, will rest in peace and forever be one more nuclear plant that suffered an early demise.
Glimmers Found Since Original Version Posted
There migh be a sliver of a chance that Ft. Calhoun can be retained as a valuable reserve asset. Like many other steam power plants around the country, it could be preserved in a lay-up condition and be restored to full operation if market conditions change.
Though it is not common for nuclear plants to be placed in that condition, there is precedent in both the US and Canada where nuclear plants were shutdown for many years and then restored to service. Maybe it’s time to do more than just think and write articles like this one published in 2013 on ANSNUCLEARCAFE. Why don’t we “mothball” shutdown nuclear plants?
Anyone interested in helping should make direct contact.
Note: A version of the above was first published on Forbes.com under the headline of Another U.S. Nuclear Plant Killed By Competition and is republished here with permission.