A berm protecting a nuclear power plant from flooding in Nebraska collapsed early Sunday, and water from the Missouri River began seeping into the basement of the turbine building on Monday.
None of that is cause for panic. The plant has been shut down for refueling since spring. The berm was characterized as an extra level of protection not essential to the safety of the plant. The flooding does not affect the cooling of the spent fuel pool. Generators continued to provide power to the pool until outside power was restored. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission has said the situation at the Fort Calhoun Nuclear Station is stable. Two weeks ago, the NRC and utility that runs the plant assured the public that there was little cause for immediate concern.
Little cause is not no cause, and immediate suggests that in another time frame, concern might become appropriate. After all, the Tokyo Electric Power Company recently made similar statements about the Fukushima nuclear power plant. At that time, nuclear regulators in the United States issue calming descriptions of better protections at U.S. power plants and stricter regulations governing them.
Fort Calhoun is not Fukushima. Floods in the Midwest are not fast-moving phenomenon. They bear no resemblance to tsunami waves. Water spreads slowly across the flatlands and provides plenty of time to shore up defenses.
With no place for gravity to take it, floodwater recedes even more slowly. That besides the recent disaster in Japan is one of several reasons that Americans are uncomfortable seeing photos of a power plant in the usually dry heartland sitting like an island in the midst of a vast shallow sea. Hearing that a berm has collapsed adds an additional level of concern. Berms arent supposed to fail, especially when the water surrounding them is hardly rushing, and although they buy time for other safety measures, when they do they create a small rush of water thats more difficult to handle than the slowly rising flood. In addition, knowing that the seepage will continue for weeks and perhaps months raises a fair question about what else might be undermined and collapse at the power plant.
And learning that the NRC has seemed unconcerned about leaks reportedly small ones, but nonetheless leaks of radioactive water in U.S. plants suggests to average citizens that their definition of nuclear containment might not be exactly congruent with that held by the government and utilities.
Fort Calhoun is 20 miles upstream from Omaha. Another, the Cooper Nuclear Station, sits some 50 miles south. Situated along the Missouri River, they have the potential to contaminate a vast swath of the Missouri and Mississippi drainages.
That wont happen this year. Its not likely to happen ever; this years widespread flooding is hardly a common occurrence. But as the United States begin to talk about adding nuclear generating capacity, now is the time for the public to examine its comfort level with the safeguards currently in place, because few people ever expected to see a flood get this close to a power plant.