By Michael Avok
FORT CALHOUN, Neb (Reuters) - Two Nebraska nuclear power plants have planned properly to protect themselves from the swollen Missouri River and keep the public safe, the head of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission said on Monday.
Commission Chairman Gregory Jaczko told reporters he had complete confidence in the efforts of the plants along the flooding Missouri River in Fort Calhoun north of Omaha and near Brownville in southeastern Nebraska.
"The water levels look to be at a place where the plants can deal with it," Jaczko said. "The risk is really very low that something could go wrong."
Jaczko toured the Fort Calhoun nuclear plant on Monday, a day after stopping at the Cooper Nuclear Station. Fort Calhoun has been shut down since April for maintenance and is expected to stay that way until floodwaters recede.
"What I saw is a plant that is dealing with a number of challenges," Jaczko said of Fort Calhoun. "Right now the plant is safe."
"They've been working for two years. It's good to see that they have made improvements," he said.
A massive melting snowpack and heavy rains have forced federal officials to release water at rates about double old records from six reservoirs on the upper Missouri River from Montana through South Dakota.
Very high water release rates are expected deep into August, threatening communities from Montana to St. Louis.
Jaczko said the situation along the Missouri River was nothing like the crisis at the nuclear plant in Japan following the earthquake and tsunami.
"We are not dealing here with any nuclear releases or any accident here," Jaczko said. "We have a very robust system to protect public safety."
RESIDENTS LITTLE CONCERNED
The tour of the two plants has generated a regional and
national buzz, but relatively little concern from residents.
In Fort Calhoun, Nebraska, five miles south of the plant, many people weren't even aware that Jaczko was checking on the plant's flood protections.
"I think there's something going on at the plant," said a woman working the counter at the local gas station, which also sells food. "All the sheriff's guys are up there. If you want to rob the bank, today would be the day."
After several weeks of preparation and flooding, the rising water seemed to be less shocking and more a fact of life for residents in the town with 850 people.
Law enforcement vehicles were posted at several spots on the highway leading to the Fort Calhoun facility. The plant was using diesel-powered generators to run facility functions.
Jaczko's Sunday visit to the Cooper Nuclear Station, 70 miles south of Omaha, also was met by little fanfare from the 148 residents of Brownville.
Shawn Grooms, 39, was more worried about how the flooding would disrupt the gathering of edible mushrooms, a regional delicacy, along the river in the spring than about the plant.
"I always come out here along the river banks to hunt for mushrooms," he said Sunday from the middle of a bridge closed to traffic by flooding. "I doubt I can do that next spring."
Grooms was one of several dozen sightseers on the bridge that normally links Nebraska to Missouri at Brownville.
Harold Davis, owner of Brownville Mills boutique, was more concerned about road closings and a loss of business. Still, people in the four-block downtown were sprucing up for the Fourth of July.
"The flood is killing business for us," Davis said. "And it probably will for the next three or four months."
(Editing by David Bailey and Jerry Norton)