The Wolf Creek nuclear plant might melt down - in court

The Wolf Creek nuclear plant has performance problems.



A $25 million lawsuit by the owners of the Wolf Creek Nuclear Power Plant against a vendor is the latest headache for Kansas City's closest nuclear reactor.

Attorneys for Kansas City Power & Light and Westar Energy claim in a lawsuit filed on April 12, 2013, in Jackson County Circuit Court that ABB Inc., in North Carolina, did lousy repair work on a transformer at the nuclear reactor in Burlington, Kansas, about 80 miles from Kansas City. Wolf Creek's owners charge that the vendor's slapdash labor led to a January 13, 2012, shutdown of the nuclear plant, which lasted 73 days.

Victor Dricks, a spokesman for the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, which provides federal oversight of the country's nuclear-energy plants, tells The Pitch that there was no immediate public danger associated with the plant shutting down after a loss of power. Even so, that closure caused regulators to place Wolf Creek at the third level of a five-level rating system used to ascribe how closely reactors should be inspected.

Most of the country's 103 nuclear reactors are in a better category than Wolf Creek. The Burlington facility shares its third-level distinction with 17 other nuclear reactors. Only one, in Alabama, has a lower rating. The NRC's rating for Wolf Creek means heightened regulation and inspection at the reactor.

Wolf Creek's shutdown was another in a string of incidents attracting attention from the Union of Concerned Scientists, a nonprofit environmental advocacy group that lobbies for clean energy. The UCS has been a frequent critic of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, insisting that the agency should be a better watchdog for the country's nuclear industry.

Wolf Creek was deemed a "repeat offender" in the UCS's March 2013 report, which covers the previous year's safety performance at every U.S. nuclear reactor. "No one has been harmed at Wolf Creek, but I wouldn't boast of its performance," says David Lochbaum, director of the UCS's Nuclear Safety Project.

The UCS had previously cited "near miss" episodes at Wolf Creek in 2011 and 2012. The facility was under increased scrutiny by regulators in 2011, after it experienced too many unplanned shutdowns the year before.

Those incidents were not deemed immediate public-safety threats. "The good thing about nuclear plants is, they are not a house of cards," Lochbaum says.

So what's the big deal?

"The whole concept is to maximize the number of steps between where you are and disaster," explains Lochbaum, who has seen disaster close up. He has been a busy man since the March 2011 meltdown of Japan's reactor at Fukushima. "Unfortunately," he tells The Pitch, "Wolf Creek is further down that path."

Great Plains Energy, holding company for KCP&L, seems to recognize this. Its most recent annual report lists Wolf Creek among the risk factors that could affect its business and financial performance.

While Wolf Creek is KCP&L's most efficient electricity generator, in terms of fuel cost, the utility acknowledges that extended shutdowns can have a negative result on company finances.

Nuclear fuel accounts for about 14 percent of Great Plains' generation; the company reported a $17 million impact from that 73-day outage last year.

And the plant's age isn't helping matters.

"Wolf Creek was constructed prior to 1986, and the age of Wolf Creek increases the risk of unplanned outages and results in higher maintenance costs," the Great Plains' report says. The same report describes Wolf Creek's performance as one of the company's greatest challenges in 2012.

That's perhaps why, on November 9, Great Plains CEO Terry Bassham said he was dissatisfied with Wolf Creek's performance and may look for a new partner to help run the facility.

"We are in the process of soliciting proposals," Bassham told investors during a third-quarter conference call. "At the end of the process, the owners may hire one of these companies to help with operations."

Anyone wanna run a pre-Chernobyl nuclear plant?


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