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Nuclear plant sets schedule to restart

(ran ET edition of Tampa & State)

With two months left until the scheduled restart of the Crystal River nuclear plant, Florida Power Corp. officials told federal regulators on Friday that they are confident of meeting their self-imposed end-of-the-year deadline.

Regulators with the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, though, warned managers of the nuclear plant that much remains to be done before the agency will be able to sign-off on restarting the reactor.

Samuel Collins, the NRC's director of nuclear reactor regulation, told the Florida Power managers that, "we probably haven't served each other well in communication of what it's going to take to get some of these things done."

The things he referred to include documents that Florida Power still must submit, NRC inspections that must be performed and required discussions of recent changes to systems and procedures.

"We're going to do whatever it takes to get the job done," Collins said after the meeting. "We may be able to meet their date. We may not."

Sometime around mid-December, Florida Power plans start a heat-producing atomic reaction by mechanically retracting large boron rods in the reactor's core that neutralize its nuclear fuel.

By the end of the month, Florida Power's schedule calls for that heat to be boiling water and generating electricity to flow out over breakers onto miles of power lines.

For the St. Petersburg-based utility, which delivers electricity to about 1.3-million customers in central and northern Florida, the return of inexpensive nuclear-generated power is a key financial goal. When running, the nuclear plant makes millions for the company; when shut down, it costs millions.

At Friday's meeting, Florida Power vice president of nuclear production John Paul Cowan said improvements to the plant's systems and procedures during the past year have helped ready the reactor for its next 20 years of operation.

Florida Power shut down the reactor in September 1996 for repairs and decided to keep it off-line as the company faced a barrage of criticism from the NRC for what the agency said was inadequate management oversight and repeated mistakes.

The plant has a new management team, but the reactor remains on the NRC's "watch list" of the worst-run nuclear plants in the nation.

After Friday's meeting, NRC Regional Administrator Luis Reyes praised the Crystal River plant's improvement, saying that today it is "clearly a much safer plant."

In a relatively short amount of time, he said, Florida Power has made many improvements to equipment, procedures and operations. Reyes said NRC inspectors would watch the plant closely as it approaches its restart date. But, he said, "everything seems to be looking good now."