Progress Energy Florida leaders are emphatic that they want to repair the utility's Crystal River nuclear plant and return it to operation. But their acknowledgement last week that shuttering the nuclear plant might eventually prove more financially pragmatic caught customers of the state's second-largest utility by surprise. Now Progress Energy's long-assumed strategy for providing power for the region hangs in the balance given the uncertain future of the Crystal River plant and the continued ambiguity about whether a proposed nuclear plant will be built in Levy County. As Progress Energy proposes its solution for Crystal River, it must make a convincing argument that the fix will work, the expense will be prudent and the facility will continue to function safely.
Nothing about the recent events at Crystal River is encouraging. Discovery of a gap in the nuclear reactor's containment wall during scheduled maintenance took the facility off line in 2009, forcing the utility to shift power generation to coal or gas plants and increasing fuel costs. As repairs to the gap in one of the wall's six panels were near completion last month, the utility found a second gap in another panel. Progress Energy says it will update Florida's Public Service Commission on June 27 about its plan for repairs.
But there is no guarantee the facility will eventually return to service, prompting the acknowledgement last week that decommissioning the plant remains an option. Progress Energy's proposed fix for Crystal River will need to pass muster with the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, which deals with safety and operational issues, and the PSC, which will decide how the repairs or a decommissioning will be financed. Progress Energy is not yet offering cost estimates for either option beyond the $440 million that's already been spent. But neither alternative would be cheap.
Those costs, and how much insurance will cover, will clearly weigh heavily in the utility's decision. But so too should the long-term costs for its 1.6 million customers, whether that's for repairs or for decommissioning and the cost of switching to more expensive fuels such as natural gas.
Unfortunately, Progress Energy will make a final decision on Crystal River in the absence of any state or federal energy policy aimed at tackling the long-term need of both Florida and the nation to diversify the power supply and lessen the dependence on ozone-damaging fossil fuels. President Barack Obama and Congress remain paralyzed on the issue, and, when he was governor, Charlie Crist's effort to encourage an alternative energy standard fell largely on deaf ears in the Republican-led Legislature.
A clear energy policy would give Progress Energy and the public a far better understanding of the broader implications for repairing the Crystal River plant long term or replacing it with a combination of other technologies, be it natural gas or renewable solar or wind. Short of that, however, Progress Energy must remain forthcoming about its options, emphasize safety and respect its customers' financial interests in making a final proposal for moving forward.