A nuclear power plant along the swollen Missouri River in southeast Nebraska will likely be shut down early Saturday as the river continues to rise following heavy rain earlier this week, a plant spokesman said Friday.
The Cooper Nuclear Station uses water from the river to generate power, but workers will shut it down if the river reaches a gauge level of 45.5 feet (13.9 meters) in nearby Brownville. That river level means water is nearing the top of the levee that protects the plant.
The National Weather Service predicts the river will reach that level around 1 a.m. Saturday. If that happens, the fuel rods will be pulled so no heat is generated to make steam that drives the turbines, halting power generation at the plant, according to Nebraska Public Power District spokesman Mark Becker.
Becker said such flood levels don't pose a danger because the plant maintains federally approved procedures and design features to keep radioactive fuel cool, including two main lines of outside power, on-site generators and a battery system that can power pumps.
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The district also has been adding sandbags atop its protective river levee in Nebraska, and Becker noted that a different levee on the Missouri side of the river is lower, meaning any overflow or breach would spill into flood plains there and reduce pressure on the Nebraska side.
So even if the Nebraska levee were topped or breached by the river, the water would flow into about 3 miles (5 kilometers) of flood plain south of Brownville, Becker said. The plant is south of Brownville, which is about 59 miles (95.5 kilometers) south of Omaha.
Becker said he knows of no instance in which floodwater has entered the plant, and he said the plant has never been shut down because of flooding. He noted that during major flooding along the river in 2011, the plant remained "high and dry."
Water surrounded a different Nebraska nuclear plant, Fort Calhoun, during the 2011 floods, but the plant had been previously shut down for maintenance and floodwaters never entered the generating plant.
The river's rapid rise this week has been fueled by snowmelt and storm runoff from a late-winter weather system that brought powerful winds and heavy rainfall to eastern Nebraska and other Midwestern states. Howling winds and heavy snow struck the western and central parts of the state.