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No-Fly Zone, “Level 4 Emergency” at Fort Calhoun Nuclear Plant?

Screencap detail of AP photo, from USA Today.

About an hour ago, Reuters published an article reassuring readers about the Fort Calhoun Nuclear Plant, North of Omaha, Nebraska. Associated Press published one about an hour and a half ago saying the same warmed-over crappy “Don’t Panic” garbage, with very little real information.

But viral sources are spreading fear right now about Ft. Calhoun, and it’s just getting started. It’s not surprising, after the gross malfeasance of Tepco and the Japanese government following the Fukushima nuclear crisis. (Incidentally, it is significantly ongoing — and maybe getting worse, though Al Jazeera‘s latest bit of “infant mortality” panic seems to be a gross misrepresentation of what passes for data).

Meanwhile, back in Nebraska: The Forth Calhoun Nuclear Generating Station is currently on an island in the Missouri River. No, it wasn’t on an island until the recent flooding…that whole being-on-an-island thing is new. I came to it because someone sent me an email with the quote, taken from a comment (not a post) on SFSIst, that said, and I quote:

“In other news, we have a level-4 emergency alert at the Fort Calhoun nuclear power plant, which is now under water as a result of the Missouri River flooding and The Kansas Department of Health and Environment is advising people to avoid contact with the Missouri River altogether.”

First and foremost, the reason the Kansas Department of Health and Environment advised people to avoid contact with the Missouri River is (they claimed) because the flood could sweep “pathogens” into the water. That comment leads one to believe that the Missouri is about to become radioactive because of a release of radioactive material from Ft. Calhoun. That is not the case — at least, not insofar as public information is available. Could it be a smokescreen? Sure, but I see no indication of that, given that there’s been no reported release at all from Ft. Calhoun, no meltdown, no core damage, no irregularities in any core, just a bit of a problem cooling fuel rods…no big deal. Not that it’s not a big deal, exactly…but I do not see the faintest hint of a “level 4 emergency” — which is to say, basically, a radiation release.

And that “level 4″ tag is significant here, because Fukushima was a Level 4 for a while. So check it: A “level-4 emergency,” on the International Nuclear Event Scale would be kind of a big deal north of Omaha. (Or anywhere…but that’s, you know, like, in my country and stuff, so I get kinda worked up.). A level-4 event would mean something like either at least one death from radiation, or damage to a small part of a reactor core (0.1%) or “Release of significant quantities of radioactive material within an installation with a high ­probability of significant public exposure,” which would be indicated if you were to, say, assume that the Missouri was being irradiated and that’s the “real” reason Kansas doesn’t want you to drink the water…not because it has cow poop in it.

Things at Ft. Calhoun sure seem shady. But there’s no indication that there’s a huge problem. This local Fox News 8 story, which draws heavily from Reuters, adds a couple of details like the fact that the plant authorities have not declared a “notification of unusual event” to the NRC, and won’t until the water gets higher than it is. What that means is that there is no “Level 4 Emergency” — as far as the NRC is concerned. What there was, was an electrical fire with poisonous gases on June 7, which caused a “Halon fire extinguisher activation” and a partial evacuation, and was reported as a Level 2 event. That’s a hell of a lot different from Level 4.

But just to be a total conspiracy nut: Fukushima was said to be a Level 4 for quite an enormously long time…including a significant period of time after radiation was released i nto the environment. In the context of post-Fukushima nuclear politics, questions should be asked, and somebody at the AP and Reuters should have spent the months since Fukushima doing a little research on Wikipedia. The Omaha Public Power District  has not advised the NRC of an unusual event beyond June 7th’s fire, and there’s been no release of radiation.

But for what it’s worth, their report on the June 7th fire…didn’t get sent to the NRC until June 8. So there’s likely to be a lag time even in a relatively small irregularity.

Suggesting there is a “Level 4 event” seems completely unfounded as I can tell, and likely to cause panic.

Incidentally, the Omaha Public Power District is presumably publicly owned — not like Tokyo Electric and Power Co., which is private. The latter are Fukushima’s owners (the plant was built by General Electric).

Also, importantly, it’s a Kansas agency advising people to avoid contact with the Missouri River. It’s the Kansas Department of Health and Environment. They don’t necessarily have the faintest idea what they’re talking about when it comes to radiation safety. They should, sure, radiation being a significant potential environmental risk in a state with nuclear reactors. But we definitely saw with the Fukushima crisis that local and state agencies know fuck-all when it comes to radiation. That’s why there’s an NRC…which is from the government, they’re here to help us.) In any event, it’s far more credible that toxins and sewage are sweeping into the Missouri, not radiation from Ft. Calhoun.

Panic is spreading in places like the LDS Freedom Forum (yes, that’s “Latter Day Saints”), where a poster calling himself “Col. Flagg” (yes, he was the fanatic right-wing CIA agent on M*A*S*H…who knew the guy was still working?) started this hysterical thread that, nonetheless, comes up at the top of a search string for the SFSIst claim…and, not incidentally, has a lot of worthwhile informational links.

In any event, here’s why Reuters says you should not panic:

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 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.

[Link.]

Whatever you might say about me, I don’t through the “Corporate Stooge” label around that carelessly, but in this case I can’t avoid it. Reuters isn’t telling even part of the story….it’s actually telling less than none of the story, and the NRC sounds asleep at the wheel here, as far as public information goes.

The backstory, from a June 8 Wall Street Journal article: On June 7, there was a fire at the Ft. Calhoun nuclear facility, and the FAA established a no-fly zone over Ft. Calhoun, after the facility “briefly lost the ability to cool spent fuel rods,” following the fire. Here’s the actual no-fly order; it is, however, possible that it’s being overstated. The restriction is only for altitudes under 3,500 feet, which lends credence to the idea that it’s a PR move, not a safety issue. I don’t know enough about airplane altitudes to say.

Anyway, here’s the WSJ on June 8, following the fire at Ft. Calhoun and the resultant establishment of the no-fly (which is still in effect):

The NRC said the plant recovered cooling ability without activating backup systems and “temperatures in the pool remained at safe levels.” The public was not in danger because the plant has been shut down since early April for a refueling outage, the agency said.

Spent fuel pools in the U.S. have received increased scrutiny after a recent crisis in Japan involving potentially overheated nuclear fuel and the release of dangerous radiation.

The agency declared an alert, the second of four emergency classes, at 9:40 a.m., 10 minutes after “an indication of fire” in a building at the plant. The NRC didn’t disclose the cause of the fire. Automatic fire control systems activated and the fire was out by 10:20 a.m., the agency said. The plant is operated by the Omaha Public Power District.

[Link.]

Spent fuel, of course, was — and is — a huge part of the problem at Fukushima, and one of the things Tepco consistently lied about.

The above, incidentally, comes to me based on to this very helpful Metafilter post (and its sources), and one Metafilter commenter sensibly points out: “One has to wonder if keeping planes, helicopters, etc. in a two-mile radius outside the nuclear plant is really just to keep any embarrassing pictures from being taken and published in the news. Out of sight, out of mind.”

Given how (relatively) few photos have been published of the Fukushima site, and how full of crap the Japanese government, Tepco, and the news was in the Japanese crisis, and how sluggish US public health response was, and the mixed messages and bland disinterest in putting out correct info about, for instance, iodine, and how the Fukushima crisis just seems to keep getting worse despite the recurring ridicule of the pro-nuclear trolls, I’m left asking the same question…and about a million more.

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  1. Neb
    June 17th, 2011 at 13:12 | #1

    Well written!
    I would like to add that News reports that the AquaDam protecting Fort Calhoun is 8 feet tall and the AquaDam company said that can hold back up to 80% of it’s height if water. Also reported today is that the water around the AquaDam is 1.5 feet high. That means Fort Calhoun Nuclear Plant is now just 4.5 to 5.5 feet from flooding! If the water overtakes the dams ability, the plant would quickly fill with 6 to 7 feet of water! Due to AquaDam limits! Again everything should be fine, but that plant should be dismantled. This is just too close to flooding all the electric switches & safety devices. This flood helped us learn this is not a safe location!

  2. John
    June 17th, 2011 at 20:37 | #2

    Excellent! As someone who lives near this nuclear plant I’ve been following these articles very closely. A few things to add. I think the reason KC is saying to avoid the river is because many Nebraska cities (including Omaha) are dumping raw sewage into the river.

    http://www.newstribune.com/news/2011/jun/04/omaha-dump-raw-sewage-missouri-river/

    As for Ft Calhoun, I understand they have just built additional backup power lines and brought in one month’s worth of Diesel fuel with more waiting for delivery farther away. I also read that inside of the aqua wall is an additional 15 (?) ft wall protecting the water pumps. The No-Fly zone is probably a combination of preventing embarrassing photos, the new power lines, and perhaps to prevent any small-aircraft terrorism or accidental crashes (Eeek!).