CRYSTAL RIVER — Ballooning costs and technical hurdles continue to dog efforts to bring Progress Energy's troubled Crystal River nuclear plant back online, further raising the specter of the utility permanently closing the reactor.
Progress Energy already has spent some $440 million to repair damage to the plant and to acquire replacement power for the reactor's inactivity, which resulted largely from a crack found in the 42-inch thick containment building wall in 2009 after a major maintenance project.
When a second gap in the reactor's concrete containment wall appeared this spring — just before the utility was set to bring the reactor back into operation — Progress Energy, again, began re-examining how the structure in Citrus County was put together.
Among the issues the utility discovered about the old wall: The size of tendons used to add tension to the containment wall was larger than in some other similar structures, and it did not have as much steel as they used in the repair.
"All of that added up to a unique condition," said Jon Franke, vice president of the Crystal River Nuclear Plant. "We were much more susceptible to" cracks.
On a media tour Tuesday, Franke said Progress Energy has hired a world-renowned engineering firm to help assess the plant. The utility expects to make a presentation to the state Public Service Commission at the end of the month about its intentions, which include the possibility of shutting down the nuclear plant.
"Everything is on the table," Franke told about a dozen regional news organizations on the tour.
"Do we spend the money to place the unit back in service?" he said. If not, "we would have to replace the electricity generation with something."
That could add myriad troubles for Progress Energy.
The nuclear plant is in disrepair at a time when the Nuclear Regulatory Commission is reviewing Crystal River's nuclear license for renewal. Progress is seeking a 20-year renewal of the license, which expires in 2016.
If the nuclear plant does not return online, Progress Energy would have to consider constructing another primary electricity generator at Crystal River.
Crystal River also has four coal generating units at the site, making it among the top three in the nation in terms of generating capacity.
Despite the potential shuttering of the reactor, James Holt, the plant's general manager who led part of the media tour Tuesday, touted the nuclear plant's operations.
He points out money already spent on upgrades to the generators for the nuclear unit that cost some $284 million.
It's brand new equipment installed during the original maintenance project, before the cracks were found. It has yet to be used.
Meanwhile, the utility is in the process of constructing a new site for spent fuel, bundles of nuclear fuel that have been partially used to fire up the reactor.
There is no fuel in the reactor now with the repair work being done of the plant. The fuel from the reactor core has been removed, and the spent fuel sits in a pool of water outside of the concrete containment wall.
Progress Energy would hate to lose the Crystal River nuclear plant, because nuclear power produces high volumes of electricity at lower costs.
"It's the speed and the volume," Holt said. If the nuclear plant is no longer used, "it would have to go through a decommissioning process."
That could cost hundreds of millions of dollars.
Higher costs for Progress Energy could also mean higher rates for consumers.
Progress Energy has insurance that covers much of the repairs. Insurance so far has covered $180 million of the $440 million spent. There's a cap of $2.2 billion per incident.
Whether each of the two gaps found in the containment unit are treated as one incident remains to be seen.
And there are four other panels that might have to be considered for repairs.
"We haven't decided which way we will go yet," said Tim Leljedal, a spokesman for the utility as reporters walked the grounds of the plant. "It's difficult to know what the costs will be."
Progress had planned to reopen the Crystal River nuclear plant in April after shutting it down in September 2009 for the maintenance project. The project was supposed to take about three months, but workers found the gap in the containment wall, which had been cut to replace the steam generators.
Last month, Progress Energy's chief executive said the utility had found a second gap in the plant's concrete containment wall during the recent late stages of retensioning the building.
Crystal River is Progress Energy's only nuclear plant in Florida. The utility, which is merging with its North Carolina counterpart Duke Energy, is seeking to build a second nuclear plant in Levy County. That, too, has run into delays.
The original planned completion date was 2016, but regulatory delays forced Progress to move the completion date until at least March 2018.
Progress Energy plans to construct the plant on a 5,000-acre site 4 miles north of Inglis. The utility is awaiting approval of an operating license from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, which is expected in late 2012 or early 2013.
Although the utility continues to move forward with the project, the company has not made a final decision on whether to build the plant.
Ivan Penn can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 892-2332. Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/Consumers_Edge and find the Consumer's Edge on Facebook.