CRYSTAL RIVER — The troubled containment building at the Crystal River nuclear plant shows no sign of additional cracking or any ongoing safety issues, according to findings from the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission's annual inspection report released Thursday during a public hearing,
But when — or if — the broken nuclear plant that has been off line since 2009 will return to service remains up in the air.
Thomas Morrissey, the NRC's senior resident inspector at the Crystal River plant., said even on site at the plant people are wondering about the reactor's future.
"The employees, they definitely want to know," Morrissey said.
Tim Leljedal, a Progress Energy spokesman, said no final determination has been made about the plant's future, but the company continues to review what steps it will take.
"The analysis is ongoing," Leljedal said. "We expect to reach a decision on (the nuclear plant) sometime in 2012. The building is in a safe and secure condition."
Progress Energy took the Crystal River nuclear plant offline in fall 2009 for an upgrade and maintenance project. The project included replacing the plant's old steam generators.
As workers cut into the 42-inch thick concrete containment wall to remove the old steam generators, the building cracked. As Progress attempted to repair the building and bring the reactor back online in March 2011, the containment cracked again.
Workers found a third crack in July. Progress added anchors to the building to stabilize it.
"That's going to help," Morrissey said. "There's no major cracking besides the second and third ones. Now it's just a question of them going through their process to determine whether to repair the containment."
Progress estimates that it will cost as much as $1.3 billion to repair the broken plant and another $1 billion to purchase alternative electricity while the reactor remains off line. Progress already has spent more than $500 million on expenses related to the first repair.
One critical factor in determining the plant's future is the impending merger between Progress and Duke Energy. It is unclear whether a new board of directors would decide to repair the plant or decommission it.
Duke was expected to present a report about its independent review of the Crystal River plant to its board this week. Duke has declined to discuss the report publicly.
Challengers of the Progress and Duke merger say the utilities need to be more transparent about the future of Crystal River, because the cost of repairing or decommissioning the plant could affect customers throughout the combined company's six-state service area.
The North Carolina Utilities Commission has scheduled what is expected to be the final hearing on the merger for June 25. So far it is not allowing questions about Crystal River or other pending nuclear projects at that hearing.
Ivan Penn can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 892-2332.