06/16/2011 - 10:08

Rising water, falling journalism

Dawn Stover

Dawn Stover

Stover is a science writer based in the Pacific Northwest and is a contributing editor at the Bulletin. Her work has appeared in...

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Every evening, my father climbs the levee along the Missouri River in Council Bluffs, Iowa, and peers down into the black water that swallows the road. The water is rising, and the Army Corps of Engineers says the levee has never faced such a test. Dad, a retired professor, is packing his books and papers. If the levee doesn't hold, his one-story house could be underwater for months.

A little farther up the Missouri, at the Fort Calhoun Nuclear Power Station near Blair, Nebraska, the river is already lapping at the Aqua Dams -- giant plastic tubes filled with water -- that form a stockade around the plant's buildings. The plant has become an island.

In Blair, in Council Bluffs, and in my hometown of Omaha -- which are all less than 20 miles from the Fort Calhoun Station -- some people haven't forgotten that flooding is what caused the power loss at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant and the disastrous partial meltdowns that followed. They're wondering what the floodwaters might do if they were to reach Fort Calhoun's electrical systems.

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) issued a "yellow finding" (indicating a safety significance somewhere between moderate and high) for the plant last October, after determining that the Omaha Public Power District (OPPD) "did not adequately prescribe steps to mitigate external flood conditions in the auxiliary building and intake structure" in the event of a worst-case Missouri River flood. The auxiliary building -- which surrounds the reactor building like a horseshoe flung around a stake -- is where the plant's spent-fuel pool and emergency generators are located.

OPPD has since taken corrective measures, including sealing potential floodwater-penetration points, installing emergency flood panels, and revising sandbagging procedures. It's extremely unlikely that this year's flood, no matter how historic, will turn into a worst-case scenario: That would happen only if an upstream dam were to instantaneously disintegrate. Nevertheless, in March of this year the NRC identified Fort Calhoun as one of three nuclear plants requiring the agency's highest level of oversight. In the meantime, the water continues to rise.

No guarantees. On June 7, there was a fire -- apparently unrelated to the flooding -- in an electrical switchgear room at Fort Calhoun. For about 90 minutes, the pool where spent fuel is stored had no power for cooling. OPPD reported that "offsite power remained available, as well as the emergency diesel generators if needed." But the incident was yet another reminder of the plant's potential vulnerability.

And so, Fort Calhoun remains on emergency alert because of the flood -- which is expected to worsen by early next week. On June 9, the Army Corps of Engineers announced that the Missouri River would crest at least two feet higher in Blair than previously anticipated.

The Fort Calhoun plant has never experienced a flood like this before. The plant began commercial operation in 1973, long after the construction of six huge dams -- from Fort Peck in Montana to Gavins Point in South Dakota -- that control the Missouri River flows and normally prevent major floods. But, this spring, heavy rains and high snowpack levels in Montana, northern Wyoming, and the western Dakotas have filled reservoirs to capacity, and unprecedented releases from the dams are now reaching Omaha and other cities in the Missouri River valley. Floodgates that haven't been opened in 50 years are spilling 150,000 cubic feet per second -- enough water to fill more than a hundred Olympic-size swimming pools in one minute. And Fort Calhoun isn't the only power plant affected by flooding on the Missouri: The much larger Cooper Nuclear Station in Brownville, Nebraska, sits below the Missouri's confluence with the Platte River -- which is also flooding. Workers at Cooper have constructed barriers and stockpiled fuel for the plant's three diesel generators while, like their colleagues at Fort Calhoun, they wait for the inevitable.

To be sure, there are coal-fired power plants on the river in Sioux City and Council Bluffs, Iowa -- north and south of Fort Calhoun, respectively -- that presumably could provide backup power if the nuclear plant were to lose power. Operators at the coal plants are protecting critical structures with berms and sandbags, but they can't guarantee that a levee break won't take the plants offline.

Failure of the fourth estate. Newspapers and websites all over the country have reported on the flooding and fire at Fort Calhoun, but most articles simply paraphrase and regurgitate information from the NRC and OPPD press releases, which aggregators and bloggers then, in turn, simply cut and paste. Even the Omaha World-Herald didn't send local reporters to cover the story; instead, the newspaper published an article on the recent fire written by Associated Press reporters -- based in Atlanta and Washington.

Unsurprisingly, much of the information in recent press reports has lacked context. For example:

  • Virtually every article about the flooding mentions that the Fort Calhoun plant was shut down on April 9. On May 27, the Omaha World-Herald reported, "The Omaha Public Power District said its nuclear plant at Fort Calhoun, which is shut down for maintenance, is safe from flooding." The implication is that being shut down makes a plant safe. But as the ongoing crisis in Fukushima demonstrates, nuclear fuel remains hot long after a reactor is shut down. When Fort Calhoun is shut down for maintenance and refueling, only one-third of the fuel in the reactor core is removed. Besides the hot fuel remaining in the core, there is even more fuel stored in the spent-fuel pool, which is not shut down. According to a May 2011 report by Robert Alvarez at the Institute for Policy Studies, there are an estimated 1,054 assemblies of spent fuel, weighing 379 tons, at Fort Calhoun. The oldest of these assemblies are in dry-cask storage, which does not require any water or electricity for cooling. Like the dry casks at Fukushima, which survived the tsunami unscathed, the Fort Calhoun casks do not appear to be in any danger from flooding.
  • Many news outlets copied this sentence from a June 6 OPPD press release announcing a low-level emergency: "According to projections from the US Army Corps of Engineers, the river level at the plant site is expected to reach 1,004 feet above mean sea level later this week, and is expected to remain above that level for more than one month." Though hardly reassuring news so far, missing from these reports (and from the original release) was the elevation of the plant itself, which turns out to be -- surprise! -- 1,004 feet. According to NRC Senior Public Affairs Officer Victor Dricks, the river yesterday was at 1,005.7 feet and is expected to crest at 1,006.4 feet. By then, the plant will be standing in more than two feet of water; luckily, the eight-foot-tall Aqua Dams should keep the water at bay. And the river is still well below the worst-imaginable scenario that OPPD is required to prepare for: a flood reaching 1,014 feet above sea level. Nevertheless, in the absence of any context, the press-release language is meaningless to any reader in the neighboring communities.
  • Almost every article about the fire and power loss at Fort Calhoun has quoted an OPPD spokesman who said that a diesel-powered backup pump was "available" but not needed. None of these articles, however, told readers how much diesel fuel is stored at the plant, how many generators and batteries are on site, and how long they could keep coolant circulating through both the reactor and spent-fuel pool. For the record, there are two emergency diesel generators at Fort Calhoun. According to Dricks, there is usually enough fuel on site to provide cooling for two weeks, but currently the plant has sufficient fuel for four weeks. Of course, the average newspaper reader would never know any of that or be privy to the timeline of potential events.
  • Finally, many articles have reported that the temperature in the spent-fuel pools rose 2 degrees during the recent power outage. That may not sound like much, but only a few articles told readers the actual temperature of the pool. And a 2 degree rise from, say, 210 degrees Fahrenheit to 212 degrees Fahrenheit (the boiling point for water) would be catastrophic. The pool is normally kept at about 80 degrees Fahrenheit. OPPD estimated that, in the absence of any power to circulate coolant, it would take about 88 hours before water in the pool would begin boiling.

Admittedly, it's not easy finding information about Fort Calhoun, even if you're a local reporter without a tight deadline. OPPD press releases and the company's online newsroom do not provide details about the plant's layout and components. Some of that information was available before 9/11 but was removed because of concerns about terrorism. In protecting ourselves from enemies, we have also hidden vital information from ourselves. So finding the relevant facts takes some digging and dialing, and most newsrooms today don't have that kind of manpower. That's especially true at newspapers scrambling to cover a multitude of flood impacts across the region.

A June 9 report delivered by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), "Information Needs of Communities," states that the number of full-time journalists at daily newspapers has fallen from a peak of about 56,900 in 1989 to 41,600 in 2010 -- fewer than before Watergate. As the FCC report observes:

An abundance of media outlets does not translate into an abundance of reporting. In many communities, there are now more outlets, but less local accountability reporting.

While digital technology has empowered people in many ways, the concurrent decline in local reporting has, in other cases, shifted power away from citizens to government and other powerful institutions, which can more often set the news agenda.

In the absence of in-depth professional reporting on the situation at Fort Calhoun, OPPD created a web page to respond to the flurry of rumors flying around the Internet. One rumor concerns the no-fly zone ordered by the FAA on June 6, which extends two miles around, and 3,500 feet above, the nuclear plant. Contrary to rumor, the no-fly zone has nothing to do with a radioactivity release. But OPPD's rumor-control page neglects to mention that the utility requested the zone, ostensibly because of work being done on overhead power lines but also because of undisclosed "security reasons." An OPPD spokesperson said that the utility is worried about news helicopters flying low over the plant.

Greater government and industry transparency can give citizens and reporters a better understanding of what's happening at the nation's nuclear power plants, and help prevent rumors from dominating the airwaves. Nonprofit organizations such as the Bulletin can help fill today's information gap. But local reporting ultimately relies on readers and advertisers who are willing to support it. Meanwhile, in the absence of reliable information, my dad continues his evening walks to the levee and peers into the rising water to judge for himself.