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Rising river waters threaten to shut Cooper nuclear plant in Nebraska

Washington β€” Workers are preparing to shut Nebraska Public Power District's 836-MW Cooper nuclear unit in Brownville as soon as early Saturday because of the rising Missouri River, company spokesman Mark Becker said Friday in an interview.

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A notification of unusual event was declared at 5:46 am CDT Friday, the company said in a statement the same day. An unusual event is the lowest of four emergency categories for US nuclear plants.

"The declaration was anticipated for several days by the power plant's operators, who closely tracked the river's steady increase in elevation due to the combination of snow melt, frozen ground, heavy rain conditions in Nebraska, and releases of water from upstream reservoirs in South Dakota," the statement said.

"There is no threat to plant employees or to the public; the plant continues to operate safely," the statement also said.

The notification is part of a plant safety and emergency preparedness plan, which dictates that when the river water level at the plant reaches 899 feet above sea level, a notification of unusual event is declared. "It's over 899 feet," Becker said.

Personnel have procured materials and supplies needed for flood protection and filled sandbags that have been placed along the river levee, the company said in the statement. Internal doorways will be barricaded should the river rise to 900 feet above sea level, the statement said.

Operators would shut the unit as a safety measure should the river level rise to 901.5 feet above sea level. The site is built with a ground level of 903 feet above sea level, although it is protected to a higher level, the company said. Becker said the reactor is not in danger of flooding.

But Becker said the National Weather Service is projecting that that the river level will reach 901.5 feet "probably" around midnight Friday to 2 am CDT Saturday. "We're preparing" to shut the reactor, Becker said.

The US Nuclear Regulatory Commission is aware of the situation, and is moving an inspector to the permanently shut Fort Calhoun reactor in Nebraska as a precaution, a spokesman said Friday.

NRC spokesman Victor Dricks said in an interview that the agency is "closely following" flood preparations at both Cooper and Fort Calhoun and that NRC has sent a resident inspector from Cooper to Fort Calhoun, meaning one inspector remains at Cooper. "We're going to be watching events very closely over the weekend," said Dricks, who added that NRC can dispatch more inspectors to either location "if conditions warrant."

Fort Calhoun was permanently shut in 2016, but radioactive spent nuclear fuel is still located at the reactor site.

-- William Freebairn, william.freebairn@spglobal.com

-- Michael McAuliffe, newsdesk@spglobal.com

-- Edited by Valarie Jackson, newsdesk@spglobal.com