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Crystal River nuclear plant troubles stoke resident fears

CRYSTAL RIVER — Staring across a nearly deserted RV resort, Wes Antill envisions doomsday.

Workers from the Crystal River energy complex once packed the park. Now few remain, and most of them plan to leave.

"It's just one big catastrophe," said Antill, the park manager. "We're going to have to start growing tumbleweed."

The energy complex houses a broken nuclear plant, known as "CR3," idled for three years after a botched maintenance and upgrade project.

Here in Citrus County, many fear that the heart of their largest employer and taxpayer may disappear, triggering an economic apocalypse: workers fleeing, businesses and schools closing, and taxes soaring for those left behind.

For several days last week, Chase Palmes watched almost two dozen regular customers walk into his Crystal River pub to bid goodbye after the plant laid them off.

"I tell you," Palmes said, "ghost town comes to mind. It really does."

• • •

In the early 1970s, the utility then known as Florida Power chose to build its first nuclear plant in the small gulf-side town of Crystal River, 80 miles north of Tampa.

The city was already home to two coal-fired power plants, located on a 5,000-acre tract.

Missteps marred construction, including a crack at the top of its 42-inch thick concrete containment building. The plant cost $375 million to build, nearly double its original budget. It opened in 1977, more than four years late. But the new plant promised to lower taxes and fuel local budgets.

"It was a dream," said state Sen. Charlie Dean, Citrus' sheriff when work on the plant began. "Look what it did for us in taxes. … Look what it did for us as a county and a community for jobs. Lord have mercy, we'd never had it so good as when we had the power plant going up."

Today, Citrus remains a small county of rolling farmland, untouched woods and sprawling town centers. Strip malls, megachurches and run-down repair shops spill out of expanses of oak forests and an inkblot test of marshes, swamps and lakes.

To outsiders, Citrus is perhaps best known for Homosassa Springs Wildlife State Park, its manatees and the Great American Cooterfest, a tongue-in-cheek celebration of the river turtle held in Inverness, the county seat.

But within county lines, no footprint is bigger than the plant. It encloses five power generators — including four coal-fired plants — and employs about 1,000 people, half of whom work at the nuclear plant.

The complex's $2.2 billion in taxable value last year was nearly twice the value of the rest of the county's commercial sector, and 39 times larger than the county's second-biggest taxpayer, Withlacoochee River Electric.

The complex's tax bill last year was $35 million — the equivalent of nearly half of the county's $80 million general fund.

And that's the problem.

Three of the generators — the nuclear plant and two of the older coal-fired plants — are at risk due to damage, age and environmental concerns. Together they account for 700 jobs and make up $13 million a year of tax revenue, said Les Cook, the county property appraiser's chief deputy.

"We went from a beer diet to a champagne diet because of the tax base the plant provided," said Dave Finley, who owns Castaways, a Crystal River watering hole frequented by plant workers since 1979.

But the kind of trouble that marked the nuclear plant's beginnings now haunts the operation in what may be its last days.

Just as the concrete containment building cracked during its 1970s construction, the building cracked again in fall 2009, as workers replaced old steam generators. But this time, an attempt to repair the building resulted in more cracks.

Progress Energy, which became the parent company of Florida Power in 2000, retained most of the workers and proposed repairing the plant. But after the company was acquired by Duke Energy on July 2, the new combined utility softened its position and has given more consideration to tearing down the 36-year-old facility.

Some Citrus residents, such as the 59-year-old Palmes, the Lollygaggers Sports Pub & Grill owner, seem resigned to their fate.

With the words "I took my love, I took it down" from Stevie Nicks' Landslide blaring behind him, Palmes said: "I don't think they're going to rebuild. Neither does anybody else."

• • •

During its meeting July 25, the Citrus County Commission pondered the grim prospect of losing millions in tax revenue.

"The five of us," said Commissioner John J.J. Kenney, "will be borrowing boots from fire services and standing on the corners to help fund programs if that happens."

Commissioner Dennis Damato put it this way: "To think of the doomsday scenario, it would be … you're going to drastically cut services; you're going to raise taxes and provide the same services; or you're going to do a combination of both."

To maintain future budgets in case of plant closure, the property tax rate would have to jump the equivalent of $100 a year for a $150,000 home, Cook said.

Some argue that hit would hurt less than expected. John Siefert, executive director of the county's Economic Development Council, said the potential tax hike would spread across Citrus' 9,000 businesses and 141,000 residents, lessening the burden.

The county, Siefert said, has more than just the nuclear plant to power its economics. Citrus County's manufacturers are building computer motherboards and windmill turbines.

The county's 450 farms, he said, are still busy selling cattle, corn, berries and hay. (Notably absent: citrus. The county's namesake was devastated by the "Big Freeze" of the 1890s, and never recovered.)

If the nuclear plant closes, he said, decommissioning is no simple task. The labor of dismantling the plant could lead, in the short term, to new paying jobs.

"It would be disappointing and hurtful and, yes, we'd have to shoulder some burdens," Siefert said. "But it's not the end-all, be-all. … We will weather this storm, if this storm occurs."

• • •

For some, the gathering storm Siefert mentioned is already overhead.

Developers put a hotel on hold as well as an apartment complex in Crystal River.

The RV resort managed by Antill also halted its expansion plans. Owner Anthony Tanner bought 175 acres of land next to his River Lodge RV Resort to cater to workers at the Crystal River nuclear plant. He also expected to profit from a proposed nuclear complex 8 miles to the north in Levy County.

Now Tanner, 73, must deal with the prospect that the old nuclear plant will be closed and the proposed plant never built, because of soaring costs and licensing snags.

"We'll just have to start going to (trade) shows and promoting ourselves," Tanner said. "There's a lot in Citrus County to see and do."

The Plantation Inn Golf Resort & Spa is looking to refocus its advertising toward tourists, playing up its marina and access to manatees.

The resort, general manager Andrew Bartlett said, once counted on plant workers for 15 percent of its business. But that spending has plummeted, and Bartlett expects an even harsher impact if the plant shuts down for good.

Charlie Dean, the state senator, hopes that any cutbacks at the energy complex can be "brokered in a way that's the least maiming and least hurting."

"If it isn't, and it's just cold turkey, slam the door and shut it," he said, "that's doomsday.''

Contact Ivan Penn at [email protected] or (727) 892-2332. Contact Drew Harwell at (727) 893-8252 or [email protected]

. Fast facs

Citrus County

Population in 2010: 141,000, one-tenth the size of Hillsborough County.

Land area: 581 square miles.

Median household income: $37,933, $10,000 less than the national average.

Founded: 1887, when broken off of Hernando County.

County seat: Inverness.

Biggest city: Unincorporated Homosassa Springs, population 12,000.

Source: U.S. Census Bureau

Hearings today

Today , the state Public Service Commission will hold public hearings in Tallahassee about the Crystal River nuclear plant and the impact of the recent Progress Energy/Duke Energy merger on the utilities' customers in Florida.

Crystal River nuclear plant troubles stoke resident fears 08/12/12 [Last modified: Sunday, August 12, 2012 11:29pm]
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