Nebraska’s Fort Calhoun nuclear power plant was shut down in April 2011 for a routine refueling outage. That 6 to 8 week outage morphed into a two and a half year fiasco as workers discovered dozens of safety issues, including substantial electrical, mechanical, and instrument problems. Many of these issues dated to the construction of the plant in the late 1960s; the “youngest” issue dated to 1996.
Why did it take decades for the plant operators and the NRC to notice and mitigate Fort Calhoun’s safety problems? In some cases, the NRC knew about the issues but failed to act. In other cases, they failed to identify problems, despite regular inspections. By operating with significant numbers of safety issues, some of which were known, the Fort Calhoun nuclear power plant put thousands of Americans under undue risk.
The Fort Calhoun outage marked the 52nd time a U.S. reactor had to remain shut down for longer than a year to restore safety margins to acceptable levels.
Nuclear safety hinges on adequately safeguarding against all the steps that precipitate disaster. The NRC should work to ensure that it detects and acts upon any safety issues far before they force a shutdown or combine in unwelcome ways during a crisis.