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Secret study said to paint grim picture of prospects for Progress' broken nuclear plant

A secret study of the broken Crystal River nuclear plant by Progress Energy's merger partner, Duke Energy, paints a more dismal picture of the plant's troubles than previously told, a watchdog group reported Friday.

The group, NC WARN, an organization that represents environmental issues and consumers before the North Carolina Utilities Commission, said Duke's board commissioned the study in the course of the planned merger with Progress.

Jim Warren, director of NC WARN, said he learned about the study from an unnamed source. Warren then issued a statement to the media Friday about the study, stating "most likely, its recommendations will be inconsistent with Progress' assumptions on the viability, cost and duration of repair."

The study is expected to be presented to Duke's full board over the next few days, his release said, adding that there are indications "that some Duke shareholders — possibly including members of the board — are pushing to get out of the merger deal, or to force a change of terms.''

The report comes as the North Carolina Utilities Commission considers whether to approve the merger — one of the final hurdles before the deal can close.

Duke issued a statement in response to NC WARN, saying, "Duke Energy continues to follow the Crystal River status while Progress evaluates its technical options (and) … we continue to work toward the regulatory approvals and target closing the Progress merger July 1."

Progress declined to comment about the study beyond Duke's statement.

The Crystal River nuclear plant has sat idle since fall 2009, when Progress took it offline for an upgrade and maintenance project, during which workers replaced old steam generators.

As workers cut into the 42-inch-thick concrete containment that houses the nuclear reactor to remove the generators, the building cracked. An attempt to repair the first crack resulted in another crack.

Progress estimates that it will cost as much as $1.3 billion to fix the building and more than $1 billion to buy alternative electricity while it remains offline. The utility spent more than $500 million on the first repair.

Mike Hughes, a Progress spokesman, said the utility picked San Francisco-based URS, an engineering, construction and technical services organization, as the preferred vendor for the work at Crystal River if the decision is to repair it.

Warren said his organization's concern is what impact the broken Crystal River plant could have on ratepayers not only in Florida but in the Carolinas. In addition, Progress also wants to build a $24 billion nuclear plant in Levy County that he said he fears could harm all ratepayers.

Progress and Duke, Warren said, have not been completely transparent about their plans, which he intends to bring up during hearings with the North Carolina Utilities Commission.

"It's also going to go to all this confidentiality and secret deals going on," Warren said.

The Florida Public Service Commission was not aware of the Duke study, spokeswoman Cindy Muir said. The commission has a status update on Crystal River on Aug. 13.

Ivan Penn can be reached at ipenn@tampabay.com or (727) 892-2332.

Secret study said to paint grim picture of prospects for Progress' broken nuclear plant 06/15/12 [Last modified: Friday, June 15, 2012 10:18pm]
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