Eventual shutdown of nuclear plant in Palo may impact outdoor warning sirens

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CEDAR RAPIDS, Iowa (KCRG-TV9) -- In severe weather, both Linn and Benton Counties rely on an extensive system of 144 warning sirens to replay important information to anyone outdoors. But few people know that system was built, and paid for, by utilities operating the Duane Arnold Energy Center in Palo.

One of 144 outdoor warning sirens in Linn and Benton County required for the license at Iowa's only nuclear power plant in Palo. With the plant shutting down in last 2020 some in emergency management are wondering about the fate of the siren system.

It’s purpose is to warn residents within 10 miles in case of a nuclear accident at Iowa’s only nuclear power plant. But the only time it’s even been activated, except for monthly testing, is weather emergencies like tornado warnings.

And now that NextEra Energy, the current plant owner, announced shutdown plans last Friday emergency management leaders wonder about the fate of the weather warning system.

NextEra says commercial power production at the plant will cease at the end of 2020. And Linn County Emergency Management director Steve O’Konek says his first thought was how do we preserve the siren system.

“The short answer is until they stop making power everything continues to operate as it has. We still maintain warning for a nuclear event and we also maintain capabilities for our storm and severe weather,” O’Konek said.

The sirens costs about $35,000-$40,000. The entire system would probably cost $3-$4-million dollars to replace.

“Peter Robbins, a spokesperson for NextEra, says “nothing will change with the system for the next few years.”

Robbins says the utility hasn’t considered the long term fate of the sirens but giving the system to emergency management offices in Linn and Benton Counties is a possibility.

O’Konek says he hasn’t considered what the maintenance costs of the system might be for the county since NextEra pays those bills now as part of its nuclear license.

Viktoria Mitlyng, a spokesperson for the Nuclear Regulatory Commission in Chicago, said what happens after power production ceases in two years is spelled out in rules and regulations.

“The requirements (for a warning system) stay in place until the owner (NextEra) can demonstrate to the NRC that an offsite nuclear emergency is no longer possible,” she said. Mitlyng added that other utilities in the Chicago NRC region have retired nuclear plants in the past.

In those cases, owners waited until 18 to 24 months after power production stopped to request an end to warning system requirements—such as outdoor sirens.

The NRC would then study the request and make a ruling.

That means about four years before any real decision about the siren system.

Whoever ends up with the warning sirens in the two counties will inherit an upgraded system.

NextEra is spending several million dollars on improvements that should wrap up this fall.