Crystal River 3: Getting a grip on the coming nuclear stigma

The Crystal River nuclear plant's bio could start:

Troubled provider of inexpensive power to Central Florida whose life was cut short by shoddy management.

And now, after the permanent shutdown of the plant last week, add to that: long-term community stigma.

Welcome to Crystal River. Here lies the remains of what was once the most expensive single asset on Florida's west coast, a radioactive hulk that will likely suppress economic activity, population and property values for decades to come.

Why? Duke Energy, the plant's current owner, chose to safeguard the risky asset north of Tampa Bay for the next 60 years, rather than dismantle and decommission it right away.

By kicking its expensive nuclear can down the road, Duke lays out far less money now and leaves the painstaking process of decontamination for future generations.

Not that Duke is unique. Press reports last year said the operators of nearly two dozen of the nation's aging nuclear reactors, including those with soon-to-expire licenses, failed to save enough money for prompt and proper dismantling.

Fans of nuclear power don't talk much about this coming blight of defunct nuke plants awaiting final cleanup. Many of the country's plants were built from the 1960s into the early 1980s and are nearing the end of their useful lives. More and more of them will be mothballed in coming years, instead of promptly decontaminated.

Crystal River 3 will be Florida's first to take this long journey.

The plant must be kept secure for as long as 60 years — that's into the 2070s — for a price tag estimated at nearly $1 billion in today's currency.

Left in limbo for so long, the plant will also spark a debate over the future of Crystal River and Citrus County. Geographically, they will be stuck babysitting an unproductive health risk for the bulk of this century.

That may require some creative salesmanship ahead by economic development leaders trying to lure new businesses there.

We get a glimpse of what may lie ahead from University of Massachusetts and Michigan State urban planning researchers John Mullin and Zenia Kotval, who 16 years ago examined the impact of closing the Yankee Rowe nuclear power plant in Rowe, Mass.

"What do we expect to happen? Our opinion is that Rowe and other communities with closing nuclear facilities will continue to decline," the researchers concluded. "They are scattered and located mostly in remote areas with small populations. … This is really a problem that no one owns. According to current arrangements it is neither the company's nor the federal government's. The communities will be lost in the shuffle."

Why does that ring true? Nuclear stigma. Even after 40-plus years of commercial nuclear power, closing a plant still carries the fear of a health risk so significant that even the federal government remains unable to find a safe place to store the industry's highly radioactive remains.

That means the radioactive waste from CR3 will likely remain stored on site in dry storage casks for many years.

In the case of CR3, the stigma is only heightened by the decision to close the plant before its normal 40-year lifespan. Progress Energy, which Duke bought last year, broke the plant while attempting to save $15 million on an upgrade project in 2009. Attempted fixes made the problem worse.

That does not inspire confidence in the caliber and willingness of CR3's owner to secure it well and later decontaminate it without incident.

True, new owner Duke Energy is not old owner Progress Energy. But a lot of the people, procedures and habits remain the same after the recent merger.

Risk analyst James Flynn of Oregon's Decision Research examined nuclear stigma in a 2002 report for the U.S. Department of Energy. He characterized the stigma as something that "runs wide and deep in American society." It is wide because all segments of the population share concern of the high stakes involved with nuclear facilities. And, he said, it is deep because there is a long history — from Three Mile Island to Chernobyl and, more recently, to Japan's Fukushima nuclear disaster — that underlies public concerns.

Wrote Flynn: "This history implies that organizations assigned to management of these hazards failed to provide the level of control and fiduciary responsibility for public health and safety expected by the public."

Crystal River 3 lasted just over 32 years as an actual provider of electricity to Central Florida and much of the Tampa Bay area. Its long goodbye will take almost twice that time. Expect services for CR3's final decommissioning to be announced in about 50 years.

Tell your grandchildren. Or maybe leave a note for your great-grandchildren.

Contact Robert Trigaux at trigaux@tampabay.com.

>>A look ahead

Decommissioning fund is a little light

Duke Energy says the price to decommission the Crystal River 3 nuclear power plant in today's dollars is just under $1 billion. By 2076, Duke's own analysis says that sum will add up to nearly $5.9 billion.

Duke has about $600 million set aside in a "decommissioning trust fund" to help pay for CR3's decontamination cleanup. That's not enough to decommission the plant right away.

By mothballing CR3 for decades, Duke says that will give the trust fund time to increase in value while allowing CR3's radioactive levels to decline naturally.

There's no guarantee the trust fund will grow fast enough to cover the plant's decommission expense. The fund is invested in stocks and bonds, which should gain over time. But as anyone with a 401(k) found out recently, you never know about investing.

SEC filings show the CR3 trust fund held about $400 million in 2000. That sum rose to $580 million in 2007 but dropped sharply to $417 million in 2008 when the stock market plummeted during the financial crisis.

Crystal River 3: Getting a grip on the coming nuclear stigma 02/09/13 [Last modified: Tuesday, February 11, 2014 9:28am]

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