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Crystal River nuclear plant fix delay hurts confidence in Florida's nuclear solution

"This event is as complicated an event as anyone I think has seen in the civil industry. It took us several months with a number of supercomputers to figure out what actually happened." — Progress Energy CEO Bill Johnson

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Florida, we have a problem.

Just as the nation's nuclear power industry hopes to regain popular favor and kick-start its revival as a serious source of new electricity generation in the Sunshine State, our local advocate and operator of nukes is stumbling.

Progress Energy, the North Carolina power company that provides electricity in three Southeastern states, including much of Tampa Bay and Central Florida, once again acknowledged Friday that repairs at its aging Crystal River nuclear plant in Citrus County will take longer and cost more than original estimates. Progress determined last fall that a concrete slab 9 inches thick had separated from the nuclear power plant's containment building and would have to be removed and the concrete repoured.

What's so galling is that the $245 million and still-rising price tag for repairs is made up of two separate costs. First, there is the $79 million spent to fix the crack in the containment wall. And then there is the far larger $166 million spent to buy electricity from other utilities that would have been generated from the nuke plant.

In other words, two-thirds of the price to "fix" Crystal River is the replacement cost of electricity from the shuttered nuke plant itself.

Here's the rub: Just as Progress Energy plans to seek increases in electricity rates in the coming years to help pay for its planned nuclear power plant in Levy County, the company may also ask for higher rates to cover the stratospheric costs — a quarter-billion dollars and still counting — of fixing its Crystal River plant.

Progress Energy shut down its nuclear plant on Sept. 26 last year, initially promising to be back up and running by last December. As we approach the one-year anniversary of the outage, Progress Energy says a restart of the plant planned for this quarter will be pushed off until at least late this year.

Read the phrase at the top of this column and you'll appreciate Progress Energy CEO Bill Johnson's evident frustration with the ballooning costs and repair delays at Crystal River. "This is an unforeseen, complicated event that I don't think anyone has ever had the experience we've had before," Johnson says.

Obviously, nobody wants a rush job on a broken nuke plant. But it's clear the company is eager to put the Crystal River fix behind it with a tough-to-get blessing of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, if only to redirect regulators' and the public's attention to the proposed Levy nuclear plant.

With a fast-rising $25 billion price tag and announced delays of several years, the Levy plant needs a major public relations overhaul to convince Floridians that it still is the most cost-efficient and reliable generator of electricity for Florida's future.

The possibility of Progress customers facing a double whammy — coming rate hikes to cover some of the costs for fixing Crystal River and building Levy — smacks of neither efficiency nor good PR.

Crystal River nuclear plant fix delay hurts confidence in Florida's nuclear solution 08/09/10 [Last modified: Monday, August 9, 2010 11:42pm]
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