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Why we miss the crippled Crystal River nuclear plant

The reactor could still be operating if not for a colossally bad decision.
In 2009, the concrete containment building that surrounds Crystal River's nuclear reactor, left, cracked during an upgrade to the facility. Repair attempts made the problem, and the reactor was permanently shut down.
Published Sep. 23

Ten years ago, the local power company broke its only nuclear plant in an act of corporate folly seared in Tampa Bay business history.

Progress Energy Florida took a reckless approach to what should have been a routine maintenance upgrade. As a result, the concrete containment wall that houses the reactor cracked in October 2009. The Crystal River nuclear plant never again produced another watt of electricity.

Back then, Progress’ customers paid for the blunder with higher rates. They continue to pay for it in other ways, something we were reminded of again last week.

Duke Energy, which bought Progress Energy in 2012, announced that it wants to extend the life of its six nuclear plants in the Carolinas. Federal regulators already granted one 20-year extension. The company plans to ask for 20 more years, which could keep some of the reactors running into the 2060s.

RELATED STORY: Florida continues strong job growth.

Prolonging the life of the plants would be good for the environment, combating climate change and customers’ pocketbooks. Nuclear plants, even older ones like the Duke ones built in the 1970s and early 1980s, produce abundant electricity without releasing carbon dioxide. Keeping the plants running will help bridge the gap between burning dirty fossil fuels and whatever technology takes their place later this century.

When U.S. nuclear plants shut down, they don’t get replaced by solar or wind. Those technologies can’t produce the huge amounts of cost-effective electricity needed to power our country 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Instead, if the power needs replacing, more natural gas plants get built. Duke, for instance, recently opened a new natural gas facility at the Crystal River site.

Natural gas is cleaner than burning coal, but that’s like saying Attila the Hun has a better reputation than Genghis Khan. About a third of all energy-related carbon emissions in the United States last year came from producing electricity. Of that, coal accounted for about 65 percent and natural gas for 33 percent, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. Nuclear accounted for zero. So the longer we keep nuclear plants running safely, the cleaner we keep our air and water.

We aren’t building many new nuclear plants in this country. Cost overruns — and a myriad of other factors worthy of book-length scrutiny — doomed many projects. In 2013, Duke Energy sidelined two reactors proposed for Levy County after the potential price tag climbed above $20 billion. Two South Carolina utilities wasted about $9 billion before shutting down a project in 2017 that will never produce any electricity.

The country’s nuclear future relies largely on the 98 remaining reactors, including four in South Florida. The existing — and largely already paid off — plants are generally cheaper to keep running than building a new natural gas plant. That can help keep customers’ bills lower.

Opened in 1977, the Crystal River reactor could have had its life extended, just like the ones in North and South Carolina and others around the country. Tampa Bay area customers could have benefited from the cheaper electricity and improved environment into the 2050s. The two remaining coal plants at the same Crystal River facility could have been closed by now. Instead, they continue to belch pollution.

A decade later, the impact of Progress Energy’s foolishness is still being felt.

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