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Work begins soon on dismantling Duke Energy’s Crystal River nuclear plant

The utility’s contractor began the decommissioning process this fall, which will ramp up in 2021.

CRYSTAL RIVER — Decommissioning of Duke Energy Florida’s nuclear plant is finally underway.

Accelerated Decommissioning Partners — Duke Energy’s decommissioning contractor — began its work this fall to dismantle the shuttered nuclear portion of the Crystal River Energy Complex.

“The plant is much cleaner than a typical shutdown nuclear plant might be,” said Scott State, CEO of Accelerated Decommissioning. “There was nothing that was a surprise to us.”

Last June, Duke Energy asked state regulators for permission to speed up decommissioning the plant, which was originally scheduled to be dismantled by 2074. It was approved in late summer.

Related: Duke Energy Florida asks to speed up Crystal River nuclear decommissioning

The nuclear portion of the plant was shut down in 2009 after Duke Energy’s predecessor, Progress Energy Florida, failed at a do-it-yourself repair to the building housing the reactor, cracking its 42-inch-thick concrete walls in the process.

Duke Energy’s push for speedier decommissioning came from a deal the utility struck with Delaware’s Accelerated Decommissioning. Instead of the projected $1.18 billion cost, the company agreed to complete the project for $540 million and finish by 2027.

Decommissioning costs will will be paid out from the utility’s fund for the process, which was collected from ratepayers from 1977 through 2001. It had $660 million in it as of July. Customer advocates criticized the deal for its lack of protections for customers, who could be on the hook for future charges if Accelerated Decommissioning does not meet its deadlines or budget.

Related: Duke Energy’s Crystal River deal needs more customer protections, advocates say

State said maintaining the projected timeline won’t be an issue.

“Our business model is really built on not taking on more work than we need to get done in the timeline we anticipated,” he said.

His firm has focused the past few months on laying groundwork for next year, when the bulk of the work will happen. That includes installing and reviving portions of rail to help move material out, as well as getting access to parts of the structure that will help his team assess how to best go about various stages of the project.

The first major removal stage will take out many of the building’s large components, as well as the reactor vessel, where the fuel would have gone. This will be ramped up beginning next year, State said.

“The skyline of a plant like this won’t change a lot in the first couple of years because we’re doing a lot of work (in the) interior of the facilities that you don’t see,” he said.

State expects his team to be active on the site for four or five years to dismantle everything necessary. Most of the radioactive portions of the plant are scheduled to be removed in the first two years of decommissioning and shipped by rail to Texas for storage.

“A nuclear plant that the state that Crystal River is in today isn’t in what I’d consider a nuclear risk,” he said, because there is no nuclear contamination at the site and the fuel has been removed.

That fuel and its storage facility are the only parts of the site that will eventually remain of the nuclear portion of the plant. That’s because there is currently no national repository for spent nuclear fuel for it to go to. Accelerated Decommissioning will wait until one is created or it can find an interim location to take the fuel to.

The final year or so of decommissioning will be largely administrative. The site will need to go through an “extensive” surveying process, and federal regulators will also need to sign off on termination for the plant’s license.

“Our current timeline has us concluding the project in about six years which is a fairly good estimate,” State said.

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