It's time for Duke Energy to acknowledge that the broken Crystal River nuclear plant is not worth fixing and announce plans to permanently shut it down. The cost of the repairs is too high, and even if the fixes worked it would be years before the plant generated power again. This is an expensive debacle for Duke Energy customers, but it would be better to spend their money on a new natural gas power plant than on trying to repair a 36-year-old nuclear plant that has not produced power since 2009.
Even if Duke closes the nuclear plant, its customers could wind up paying $1.3 billion in costs tied to the failed effort to upgrade it, Tampa Bay Times staff writer Ivan Penn reported Sunday. If that's not upsetting enough, Duke could pocket $100 million of that total. That's money that should go back to ratepayers, not to the utility's pockets.
As difficult as those numbers are to swallow, it makes no sense to throw more good money after bad. Spending another $3.4 billion to fix and improve the nuclear plant, plus another $300 million a year for replacement power, doesn't add up. That would be like trying to salvage an old house and tacking on an addition when a new, modern house would be better and less expensive in the long run.
It never should have come to this. Progress Energy Florida tried to save money by repairing the plant itself in 2009 instead of hiring an outside company. Workers cracked the reactor's containment wall, then caused more cracks when they fixed the first crack. The plant has been closed since then, and Duke Energy — which acquired Progress Energy last year — and the insurer have been fighting over how much of the costs the insurer will pay. Meanwhile, Gov. Rick Scott and the toothless Florida Public Service Commission have not lifted a finger on behalf of ratepayers. Neither has the Florida Legislature, which passed a 2006 law that lets utilities charge customers in advance for nuclear power projects that may never be built.
Instead, Duke Energy had plans last summer to proceed with expanding the nuclear plant's capacity even as it sat idle. The cost to customers was to be $51 million last year, $110 million this year and $64.5 million next year. But as financial reality took hold, Duke wisely scaled back and has been doing just minimal design and engineering work. The less spent until a firm decision is made, the better.
There is no point in proceeding with the costliest repair ever of a nuclear power plant. The Crystal River plant was built in the 1970s, hasn't produced power in more than three years and would have to be relicensed by the federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission in 2016. The best approach would be for Duke Energy to start the work needed to decommission the nuclear plant and build a plant powered by natural gas.
A new natural gas plant could cost ratepayers perhaps $1.2 billion, and there are concerns that Florida is becoming too reliant on natural gas to generate electricity. But with natural gas prices at historic lows, the cost of building nuclear plants too high and coal plants out of the picture, there isn't a viable alternative. Renewable energy and conservation are parts of the long-term solution, but they can't replace the power generated by the Crystal River nuclear plant.
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There are no good alternatives for Duke Energy customers here, but there is only one defensible way forward: Close the Crystal River nuclear plant for good.