TALLAHASSEE — Before spending billions of dollars, consumer advocates want a solid review and strategy for repairing Progress Energy's broken nuclear plant, noting at a hearing Thursday that the building had structural problems even back when it was built.
While the focus has been on two recent gaps in the plant's concrete containment wall, consumer groups said during the hearing that the first gap appeared in 1974 in the concrete dome on top of the building.
Charles Rehwinkel, associate state public counsel, questioned whether the containment building was simply flawed or whether Progress Energy properly handled maintenance and repair of the plant. He said hurried or ill-conceived plans to restore the reactor could prove costly to ratepayers.
"This is all going to be about decisionmaking by the company," Rehwinkel said.
Jon Moyle, a lobbyist for the Florida Industrial Power Users Group, added that ratepayers already have paid $150 million to $200 million in operational expenses alone for the plant, even though it "can't light a single lightbulb" because of the needed repairs.
"This is an inordinately complex matter," Moyle said. "It's dire for customers."
Thursday's hearing was the first since Progress Energy submitted its latest plans for the Crystal River nuclear plant last month. The hearing before Public Service Commission member Eduardo E. Balbis was part of the state's effort to determine whether the decision to repair the plant as well as the cost and timing of the work are "prudent."
The potential high costs to ratepayers and questions about the plant's history of repairs led some to wonder whether the plant might still need to be shut down.
Tim Leljedal, a spokesman for Progress Energy, acknowledged after the hearing that the containment building's dome did have a gap when it was constructed. But he said the problem was unrelated to the current troubles.
"The engineering of the dome is unique compared with the rest of the containment building," Leljedal said. "That said, the dome was repaired successfully."
After the repair of the concrete dome, the reactor operated without trouble to the containment building until the fall of 2009.
That's when Progress Energy took the Crystal River nuclear plant offline to replace old steam generators. The project required the utility to cut a hole in part of the containment wall.
Workers then discovered a gap in the wall, which Progress Energy repaired. But when Progress was set to bring the reactor back online this spring, workers found another gap in the wall.
The utility now says it will cost between $900 million to $1.3 billion to fix the containment wall. In addition, Progress will have to spend $1 billion to buy electricity while the reactor sits idle.
While Progress says insurance is expected to cover the $1.3 billion in repair costs, as much as half a billion in electricity purchase costs would have to come from ratepayers. That's all in addition to the $150 to $200 million ratepayers are paying in operational costs for the broken plant.
And though the utility says the repair costs would be covered by insurance, that has not been officially decided by Progress Energy's insurer, NEIL.
"Progress Energy has uncertainty about whether NEIL will cover the second (gap)," said George Cavros, a Florida-based lawyer for the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy. "There are some issues yet to be resolved."
Progress Energy reviewed 22 different plans for restoring the nuclear plant and considered decommissioning the reactor but determined repairing the containment building was the best option to save ratepayers money. The utility expects to bring the plant back online sometime in 2014.
"We think the schedule that is laid out here is doable," said Alex Glenn, counsel for Progress Energy.
Ivan Penn can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 892-2332. Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/Consumers_Edge and find the Consumer's Edge on Facebook.