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Regulator signs off on threatened nuclear plant

An aerial view of the Fort Calhoun Nuclear Power Plant in eastern Nebraska, surrounded by Missouri River flood waters
An aerial view of the Fort Calhoun Nuclear Power Plant in eastern Nebraska, surrounded by Missouri River flood waters

By Michael Avok

BROWNVILLE, Neb (Reuters) - A top regulator said on Sunday that a nuclear power plant threatened by flooding from the swollen Missouri River was operating safely and according to standards.

"I got to see a lot of efforts they're taking to deal with flooding and the challenges that presents," Gregory Jaczko, the chairman of the federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission, said after touring the Cooper Nuclear Station near the village of Brownville and meeting with plant officials and executives.

"Right now, we think they're taking an appropriate approach. This is a plant that is operating safely and meeting our standards," he added.

The plant is located about 80 miles south of Omaha, where snow melt and heavy rains have forced the waters of the Missouri River over its banks, although they have not flooded the plant and receded slightly on Sunday.

Jaczko said he was not doing an official plant inspection. He was briefed by NRC resident inspectors -- the agency staff who work on-site every day -- plant officials and executives, said Mark Becker, a spokesman at the Nebraska Public Power District, the agency that runs the plant.

The power plant sat about 4 feet above the river's level on Sunday. The river had surged over its banks near the plant and filled in low-lying land near the Cooper plant.

Water levels there are down after upstream levees failed, Becker said, relieving worries that water will rise around the Brownville plant as it has at another nuclear plant north of Omaha in Fort Calhoun.

Art Zaremba, director of nuclear safety at Cooper, backed the assessment.

"The plant is very safe right now, and we've taken a lot of steps to make sure it stays that way," Zaremba said.

Residents near the plant were largely unconcerned about any potential safety risks from flooding ahead of Jaczko's visit.

"I just don't think the water is going to get that high," said Brownville resident Kenny Lippold, a retired carpenter who has been following each step of the flood preparations in this riverside village of 148 residents.

"They claim that they are going to keep operating," Lippold said, adding that he will not flee his home of 29 years even though it is less than a mile from the Cooper reactor.

Local shop owner Katy Morgan, 28, said her fears have been assuaged by information she has received via plant officials, who give out emergency radio equipment to residents within a 10-mile radius of the Cooper plant.

"I know everybody freaks out when they talk about nuclear," said Morton, who runs a boutique on Brownville's main thoroughfare. "I suppose if there was a drastic increase in the river I would be concerned. If they say 'evacuate' then I would be concerned," Morton said.

Jaczko will visit on Monday the Fort Calhoun plant in the town of Fort Calhoun, Nebraska, about 20 miles north of Omaha, an agency official said.

Flood water up to 2-feet deep is standing on the site of the 478-megawatt Fort Calhoun plant, which will stay shut down until the water recedes, the NRC said.

On Sunday afternoon, workers accidentally deflated an auxiliary berm at the plant, said Omaha Public Power District spokesman Jeff Hanson.

Hanson said the "aqua dam" was a supplemental measure that provided workers "more freedom" but was not essential to keeping the plant dry.

"The plant itself is still protected," Hanson said. Floodwater would need to rise over 7 feet to flow over the berms and enter the plant, Hanson said, adding that the supplemental dam was not in original flood prevention plans.

An NRC inspection at Fort Calhoun two years ago indicated deficiencies in the flood preparation area, which have now been remedied, the agency said.

(Writing by Eric Johnson; Editing by Tim Gaynor)

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