Omaha Public Power District (OPPD) CEO Tim Burke gave back-to-back presentations in Blair Tuesday night about the recommendation to close its Fort Calhoun Nuclear Station (FCS) at the end of the year.
Burke's visits to the Washington County Board of Supervisors and Blair City Council were the first time the utility addressed Blair residents since the OPPD Board of Directors officially heard the recommendation from senior management May 12. The board will vote June 16 on whether to close the plant. If it chooses to shutter it, which is likely, it will also decide on its decommissioning strategy at that time.
The OPPD board has set a goal to achieve rates 20 percent below the regional average; they are currently about 7 percent lower. There would be no projected rate increase through 2021 if FCS closes.
Burke used the same presentation given to the OPPD board May 12 for the county board and city council meetings.
He first addressed the county board, which moved its meeting to a larger room in the Washington County Courthouse basement to accommodate attendees. About 50 people attended, including county employees and media.
Chairman Carl Lorenzen, District 4-Blair, asked Burke if the exclusion of nuclear power in the Obama administration's Clean Power Plan (CPP) was a “mitigating factor” in the recommendation for closure.
U.S. House Republicans unveiled an appropriations bill earlier this week that would defund some of President Barack Obama's environmental programs, including the CPP. In February, the Supreme Court stayed implementation of the CPP pending judicial review. Last week, the U.S. Court of Appeals moved for the District of Columbia Circuit to postpone CPP arguments until September.
Supervisor Jeff Quist, District 5-Blair, asked Burke if the utility's decision would be "a little premature" considering the pending status of the CPP.
Burke explained that if CPP is not implemented, closing FCS is still a $994 million benefit to the utility. If the CPP is implemented and the plant closes, $735 million will be saved.
About a half-dozen attendees in the audience asked questions. Burke emphasized that the possible closure is not a hastily made decision; it comes after years of review by OPPD. He said it is not reflective of the plant's workers or its manager, Exelon.
“I'm not sure we would have restarted in '13 (after the shutdown due to the 2011 flood) if we didn't have a partner like that," Burke said.
The plant, he said, has been performing “at the highest rate it has in a long time.”
If FCS closes at the end of the year, most employees would remain there for 18 months to two years for the decommissioning process. Others would stay for longer.
Burke said that OPPD's intent is to keep "as many people in this region as we can," he said.
"There's a high need to keep that technical ability in this area," he said.
Attendance was lower at the city council meeting, although a number of residents attended for other hot-button agenda items that night. Comments were not allowed during the OPPD presentation.
City Administrator Rod Storm noted that OPPD has an agreement with the city for water. That water capacity could be made available for other large-scale customers.
What the city doesn't know about the impact of a possible FCS closure, Storm said, is “the impact it's going to have on the downtown businesses.”
Once the plant is decommissioned, the greenfield site could “create some opportunity” for the neighboring biorefinery campus, said Burke, who serves as chairman of economic development on the Greater Omaha Chamber Board of Directors Executive Committee. The FCS site could also be a location for other power generation options besides nuclear.
“Certainly, it could create some great economic development as well,” he said.
Burke encouraged the public to come to the OPPD board meeting at 10 a.m. July 16 at Energy Plaza in Omaha.
Blair's Mines addresses community response
Burke was the only OPPD representative who spoke at the presentations Tuesday. Mick Mines, chairman of the OPPD board and a Blair resident, was not present because he was on vacation in Wyoming.
Mines told the Enterprise in a phone interview Monday that he has not received an influx of calls regarding the possible closure of the plant. He has spoken with residents in the public and had one visit, despite urging from residents on social media — most notably, the "Save FCS" group — to contact the OPPD board.
“I applaud all the folks that are involved with FCS," Mines said. "Their motives are just right-on. It's underlying that, we are going to lose 600 jobs at that site. These are our friends and neighbors.
"I think it was a shock to some, sure," he said. "But if you're in that industry, you pay attention to what's going on in that industry. Our cost of providing electricity from that plant is extremely high compared to other sources of energy: coal, wind and natural gas."
Burke said that OPPD's recommendation to close the plant is a "much larger issue than just Fort Calhoun."
Some residents have been critical of Burke's role in the recommendation, claiming he is leading the charge to close the plant.
"This is isn't Burke's decision," Mines said. "We directed him and his management team to completely evaluate all of our generation going forward — what kind of usage we're going to have, because usage is falling. We want to be 20 percent below the regional average in our rates. We're not downsizing, but we're rightsizing, if you will, the entire organization. It's a wholesale change to OPPD.”
Mines said that the 20 percent goal was set because other utilities, like MidAmerican Energy in Iowa, are less expensive.
"It landed a couple of prospects that would be very nice if they were in our district," Mines said. "Our ratepayers expect us to be as inexpensive as possible as well.”
Mines also addressed concerns that OPPD's optimism about the use of wind power is too risky because subsidies aren't permanent.
“The credits that wind companies get are one-time when they build the systems," Mines recognized. "OPPD can't own wind generation and take advantage of those credits. We contract with wind providers, and we lock in long-term rates at a very inexpensive price. Natural gas is a volatile plan as well. Solar isn't quite there yet.
"That's part of the risk," he said. "It's a long-term agreement."
Blair school board talks FCS
The Blair Board of Education briefly discussed the possible closure of FCS during a meeting Monday night. According to Supt. Rex Pfeil, 107 households have one or two adults who work for OPPD; 88 of those households have children. The district doesn't know, however, how many of those people work for FCS because the data only specifies OPPD as a whole.
Blair Community Schools typically receives between $275,000 and $290,000 per year in lieu of taxes from OPPD. That payment is not expected to change because the payments are based on gross revenue, business manager Tom Shearer explained.
He added that if the plant were to close, it is not expected to have a significant impact on valuations.
"I think it will impact our school district and I think it will impact Washington County," said board member Jennifer Reyzlik, who works at FCS.
An online petition started in the past week at Care2 Petitions, “Don't Shut Down Low-Carbon Footprint Power Plants,” targets the OPPD Board of Directors. It states a goal of 1,000 supporters. It had 245 supporters listed as of Wednesday night; 82 claimed to be from Nebraska.