The Crystal River nuclear power plant is about to embark on a long, expensive and somewhat uncharted journey toward oblivion.
Duke Energy's decision earlier this week to close the nuclear plant left the company with two options:
• Clean and decontaminate the plant of radiation within a few years.
• Put it in safe storage for up to 60 years before ridding it of radiation.
Duke chose option two, a route only seven other U.S. nuclear plants have undertaken and none have finished.
Duke Energy says putting the plant in safe storage (known in the industry as SAFSTOR ) will save millions in up-front costs while letting natural decay do most of the decontamination.
Among those on the same path: the infamous Three Mile Island reactor near Middletown, Pa., where a 1979 meltdown became one of the worst nuclear disasters in American history. So is the N.S. Savannah, the world's first nuclear cargo-passenger ship and a showcase of President Dwight Eisenhower's "Atoms for Peace" initiative, now docked outside a Baltimore pier.
Not everyone favors kicking the nuclear can down the road.
As executive director of the Brattleboro Development Credit Corp. in Vermont, Jeff Lewis helped study the impact of the potential closing of the aging Vermont Yankee Nuclear Power Plant. His group's recommendation: decontaminate the plant as soon as possible.
"Decontamination could still be a four- or five-year process. But at the end, you're done," Lewis said.
"When you're looking at something like this, you want to get it over with. Who knows what the world will look like in 80 years? Do you really want a deteriorating nuclear power plant to sit there for 60 or 80 years?"
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Crystal River stands apart from other mothballed reactors.
At about 860 megawatts, Crystal River would be one of the larger plants in safe storage, NRC records show.
A few utilities started out safe-storing a nuclear plant and then shifted to prompt decontamination. Of those still in safe storage, the most recent plant was put on ice in the late 1990s; most of them date back to shutdowns in the 1970s.
The oldest in the safe-storage ranks, the Vallecitos boiling water reactor in California, was the first privately owned nuclear plant to deliver mass amounts of electricity to the public. It shut down in 1963 and isn't scheduled to be fully closed until 2019.
Decontaminating a plant involves removing tainted equipment, locking used nuclear fuel in dry storage and scrubbing leftover radioactive material from heat exchangers, pipes, floors and walls.
But in safe storage, time does some of the work, as decades of decay break down radioactivity into its safer, more stable parts.
"The longer you wait, the easier the cleanup," Nuclear Energy Institute senior technical adviser Steven Kraft said, "because of this natural decay."
Radioactivity from a plant in safe storage for 30 years drops by 98 percent, Nuclear Energy Institute records show.
But during that time, the radioactive materials need some expensive babysitting, including round-the-clock monitoring and on-site security.
Decades of decay also raise environmental concerns over potential radiation leaks or ground contamination. During the debate over how to close Vermont's lone nuclear plant, nuclear safety advocate Arnie Gundersen said the security at deactivated plants is intended to keep people out, not pests like rodents, birds and insects. He cited concerns of radioactively contaminated pests scattering feces affecting surface water and runoff.
Opponents of safe storage also fret over lost institutional knowledge over time. Those on-site experts who operated the plant won't be around if troubles arise many years later.
Peter Bradford, a former member of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, said the utilities could benefit from cleaning up a site quickly.
Some utilities prefer decontaminating a plant as soon as possible because they know they can pass some costs on to customers under current rules.
"Who knows (what the rules will be) in 40 years?" Bradford said. "Some utilities have been reluctant to take that gamble."
Decontaminating a site quickly isn't without its problems. Higher radiation levels are emitted in transporting spent nuclear fuel rods for disposal now compared with 40 or 50 years down the road.
One of the biggest reasons for choosing safe storage is the cost.
Duke Energy, which inherited the troubled nuclear plant by buying Progress Energy last year, said the $600 million currently in its decommissioning fund wasn't enough to pay for speedy decontamination.
The fund is an investment, but Duke spokesman Mike Hughes would not say how fund proceeds are invested nor how fast it's expected to grow.
Hughes said the utility is confident the fund will grow large enough to handle eventual decommissioning costs, even though he could not provide a projection for the annual costs of safe storage let alone its total decommissioning bill.
Hughes said it was too soon to talk about the cost of decontamination versus the 60-year mothball option.
However, in a 2008 study, Progress Energy estimated safe storage of the Crystal River plant would cost $963 million over 60 years, nearly 20 percent more than the estimated $818 million for decontaminating the site right away. In that study, costs were front-loaded under immediate decontamination with 80 percent spent in the first 10 years. Safe storage, in contrast, only pays out a fourth of its total costs in the first 10 years.
After two years in transition, the report said, the plant would lie dormant for more than three decades before crews prepared to fully decommission it.
Before the long safe storage process was finished, nearly 20 million pounds of waste would be disposed, recycled or shipped off for "controlled burial" in steel containers or shielded truck casks, the 2008 report said. Half of that weight, about 10 million pounds, would be designated as low-level radioactive waste.
Times researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report.