Sweet Dreams Fort Calhoun Nuclear Plant

After more than 43 years of service, the Fort Calhoun Station—a single-unit 478-MW nuclear power plant, which was the smallest operating reactor in the U.S. fleet—came offline for the final time at 12:55 p.m. CDT on October 24, 2016.

Some said the mood at the plant was subdued, but professional. Many workers and other plant supporters had lobbied to keep the facility in operation, but the Omaha Public Power District (OPPD) board of directors voted unanimously on June 16 to retire the plant. The decision was based on economics.

“This has never been about employees. It’s never been about our partners. It’s been about a facility that has an economy-of-scale issue—has market forces that are fighting against it—that’s creating the current situation that we’re in,” OPPD President and CEO Tim Burke said at the time.

The Fort Calhoun Station has shut down countless times over the years, of course, but inserting rods for the last time was bound to be somewhat emotional for the people involved.

“This is an historic and somber day for everyone at OPPD, past and present,” Burke was quoted on the OPPD website as saying. “For more than 40 years, the men and women who have worked here have done so with a passion to serve that reflects the very best in our company and our community. I want to acknowledge the work, especially over these last few months, under really tough conditions. Employees have remained focused on doing their jobs safely and with the highest levels of professionalism. Everyone should be assured that dedication will continue in the coming months and years as Fort Calhoun Station completes its defueling and begins the decommissioning process.”

The plant has endured many challenges over the years. In 2007, POWER gave Fort Calhoun a Top Plant award for work performed during a nearly $400 million renovation project. The scope included replacing the unit’s two steam generators, reactor vessel head, and coolant system pressurizer. It was the first time that all of those components had been replaced at a nuclear plant during a single outage. Nonetheless, Fort Calhoun completed all work five days ahead of schedule.

But that project seems minor compared to the effort required of employees a few years later. In April 2011, the plant was shut down for a scheduled refueling outage, but it remained offline for more than two and a half years after floodwaters from the Missouri River surrounded the plant that summer.

“A lot of people came out and all the doers came to the front. That water was coming up six inches a day, every day. We didn’t know how high it would get. We put up three-quarters of a mile of elevated walkways, I know because I measured it out. We had pumps everywhere. We ended up using 350,000 sand bags,” John Brandeau, project manager in Nuclear Project Management, was quoted as saying in a story posted to OPPD’s The Wire.

The plant also sustained damage in June 2011, unrelated to the flood, from an electrical fire in a switchgear room. Many people at the station pointed to the employees’ commitment and resolve to protect the plant—and each other—as the one thing that made Fort Calhoun special.

“It’s the people that resonate with me. The dedication of the people at the station. That has been evident since the day I was hired in June 1993, watching them go through the struggles to get back online, the outages, maintaining the equipment and working as a team,” Craig Longua, outage manager, was quoted as saying in the same The Wire story.

The shut down on Monday went off without a hitch. The plant was powered down at 10% per hour until it reached 30% power. At that point, reactor operators initiated a manual reactor trip to insert all control rods, shutting the reactor down for the final time.

OPPD will begin the decommissioning process this year using the SAFSTOR methodology, which places the facility in a safe, shutdown condition, allowing radioactive elements to decay over time. Using this method, owners have up to 60 years before the site must be decontaminated to levels that permit release for unrestricted use.

Aaron Larson, associate editor (@AaronL_Power, @POWERmagazine)