If the troubled Crystal River nuclear plant becomes the first in Florida to be permanently shut down, it will cost a bundle.
"Hundreds and hundreds of millions of dollars, if not billions," said J.R. Kelly, who represents consumers before the Public Service Commission. "It can be quite complicated and quite expensive."
Progress Energy, which owns the plant, does not want to close it. In fact, it had been repairing the 34-year-old facility and had requested a 20-year renewal of its operating license, which expires in 2016. But then the repair job ran into unexpected problems, forcing the utility to consider the possibility that closing the plant would make more sense than fixing it.
"No option has any more weight than another," said Tim Leljedal, a spokesman for Progress Energy. "Our preference is to restart the plant. We can't discuss the other options right now."
If shutting down the plant permanently is the choice, Progress Energy customers have already paid for some of the costs, through a fee that the utility collected from ratepayers until 2002. That fund, now in a trust, contains $593 million.
Chances are, that won't be enough.
The last U.S. nuclear plant to go through the decommissioning process was a 67-megawatt operation in Michigan. Cost: $390 million. But that plant is much smaller than the 838-megawatt Crystal River plant. Closer in size is the 40-year-old Vermont Yankee nuclear plant, which is scheduled to be shut down next year when its license expires. Vermont Yankee has $465 million in its decommissioning fund. But the actual cost is estimated at $550 million to as much as $1 billion.
Progress customers would be on the hook for anything above the $593 million in the Crystal River decommissioning fund. And that's not all. Permanent loss of the nuclear plant's generating capacity inevitably means building a new energy source like a natural gas plant to replace it. Progress Energy's second nuclear plant is still at least a decade away from going online, if it clears regulatory hurdles.
The Nuclear Regulatory Commission gives power plant operators three options for decommissioning reactors.
• The first is to immediately dismantle and decontaminate it. This is the most expensive.
• A less costly option, in the short run, allows an offline plant to stay idle for a period of years until the radioactive material inside decays and becomes less dangerous. At that point, the demolition is completed.
• In the final option, the plant would be entombed in concrete. This option, somewhat akin to what the Soviets did at Chernobyl, has never been tried in the United States. It would leave the plant area unusable for many years. Given that Progress Energy also has coal-powered generators at Crystal River, this option would not seem likely here.
The first two options involve removing radioactive equipment and demolishing the plant's structures using cranes and other machinery. In addition, the reactor's fuel rods have to be safely contained until a permanent storage location is found.
When the site is safely dismantled and decontaminated, the NRC releases the property for uses deemed safe for the particular site. Depending on the how much of a problem radioactivity was at the site, the NRC might limit what can be built on the land.
Crystal River has been offline since September 2009 when the utility began a major maintenance project. Workers discovered a crack in one of the six concrete panels that form the reactor's 42-inch containment wall.
Progress Energy was set to bring the reactor back online this spring but then found another crack in a second panel on the containment wall.
The utility has already spent $440 million on repairs and to pay for electricity to make up for the lost generating capacity.
Fortunately, the company has insurance. It has paid $180 million so far against a cap of $2.2 billion per incident. Progress Energy says it has not been determined whether each crack will be treated as the same incident or separate ones.
The cost of replacing the entire containment building, should that be necessary, could run into the billions. A further complication: One of the containment building panels abuts the pool in which spent fuel rods from the reactor are stored. Progress would need to secure the spent fuel pool before replacing that wall.
"It would definitely be more of a concern," said James Holt, general manager of the nuclear plant. "That would be a nuclear safety concern."
During a media tour last week, Jon Franke, vice president of the Crystal River nuclear plant, said the complexity of dealing with the problems with the reactor has resulted in "a unique condition" for the company.
He said in looking at whether to return the plant to operation or decommission, "everything's on the table."
Whatever the choice, Kelly, the consumer advocate, said a determination will have to be made whether ratepayers should continue to pay for the reactor in their bills.
If the plant is in disrepair for years to come or be shut down for good, Kelly said he believes the money ratepayers are paying should go back into their pockets, rather than filling the utility's coffers.
"If this capital asset is not in a useful state, why should (Progress Energy) be able to earn a return on that?" Kelly said. "If it's going to be down for five years, Progress Energy should not charge ratepayers for that."
Ivan Penn can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 892-2332. Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/Consumers_Edge and find the Consumer's Edge on Facebook.