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Public counsel seeks delay in hearings on broken Crystal River nuclear plant

Public hearings about the broken Crystal River nuclear plant could be delayed as much as seven months, until January 2013, as lawyers and experts continue to sift through millions of documents in the case.

J.R. Kelly, the state public counsel who represents consumers before the Public Service Commission, said his office initially requested a 60-day extension of the case, which would move it from June to August.

But that's when several annual rate hearings begin. During a forum about nuclear energy Wednesday at St. Petersburg College, Kelly said further delay is needed because the case involving the broken Crystal River nuclear plant, which has been idle since 2009 because of cracks in its concrete reactor containment building, is the most complicated the commission has faced.

"It is unprecedented," Kelly said. "We think it will go two or three weeks. We don't want to start and stop. We also wanted more time to develop our testimony."

Kelly's office has hired two world-renowned engineering experts as witnesses for its case: William Jacobs, who holds a doctorate in nuclear engineering, and Oral Buyukozturk, a civil and material engineering professor at MIT who is a leading authority on concrete.

In addition, Kelly said his office, led by Charles Rehwinkel, associate public counsel, has collected testimony from dozens of people related to the case and reviewed millions of pages "morning, afternoon and night."

Cindy Muir, a commission spokeswoman, said the PSC believes it can schedule two weeks of hearings in August and is currently working to do so.

The commission had scheduled five days in June for the hearing to determine whether Progress Energy acted reasonably and prudently when it replaced old steam generators at the Citrus County nuclear plant.

During the project, the 42-inch-thick containment building that houses the nuclear reactor cracked. After the crack was repaired, the building cracked two more times. Progress has said it will cost at least $2.5 billion to repair the plant and purchase alternative electricity while it remains offline. The utility believes insurance will cover about three quarters of the costs but wants its 1.6 million Florida customers to pay the rest.

For Progress to be able to pass those costs onto customers, the commission must affirm that the utility's handling of the project was prudent and reasonable.

Customers paid $110 million in 2010 for money Progress spent to buy alternative electricity and will pay $140 million this year. That money would be refunded if the PSC determined Progress' actions were not prudent.

Ivan Penn can be reached at ipenn@tampabay.com or (727) 892-2332. Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/Consumers_Edge.

Public counsel seeks delay in hearings on broken Crystal River nuclear plant 01/12/12 [Last modified: Friday, January 13, 2012 6:55am]

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