Crystal River Nuclear Facility lies dormant amongst the stacks of Progress Energy’s coal plants in Citrus County, Fla. In addition to fixing and renewing this 35-year-old reactor, the company is in the final phases of establishing an entirely new facility in the neighboring Levy County. Photo by Ashley Crane.

Environmental organizations and industry critics question Progress Energy’s plans to revive nuclear energy in Florida

A breezy weekend morning overlooking Crystal River makes you forget you’re so close to Gainesville for a moment. The air’s quiet and crisp, critters rustle through the grass and fish weave through the glistening water. In the distance, two nuclear power plant cooling towers shimmer.

Certainly an unexpected presence at the otherwise pristine Crystal River, Progress Energy’s nuclear facility is more than just an eyesore. In the past three years, the 35-year-old plant has had three major structural defects, which put it out of commission in 2009, just one year after Progress Energy applied for the plant’s 20-year license renewal.

While a host of environmental organizations and experts warn that nuclear energy in Florida is dangerous, unnecessary and unfair to rate payers, Progress Energy plans to not only renew the license of its current plant, but to also build an entirely new plant in Levy County, about eight miles north of the Crystal River facility.

A Cozy Relationship?

Before a nuclear plant is even built, it must be approved by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) for its operational license, which lasts 40 years. Additionally, each plant may apply for a license renewal in the years leading up to the original license’s expiration.

Even though its original expiration date looms on the horizon, just four years from now, Progress Energy wants to extend its operating license for another 20.

They wanted it, and they got it.

Well, almost. If it hadn’t been for those three containment wall cracks in 2009, the Crystal River nuclear facility would most likely have been up and running until 2036.

In the NRC’s 37-year history of establishment, it has only ever denied two nuclear power plants their operating license. Two of 104. Additionally, the NRC has only ever denied one license renewal (more about that later), granting 62 facilities their 20-year extension to date.

The relationship between the NRC and the bodies it regulates – each of the country’s 104 nuclear power plants – “plays a role in everything the NRC does – licensing, inspection, enforcement,” said Peter Bradford, Vice-Chair of the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS), a nonprofit science-focused environmental advocacy group. Bradford served as a commissioner of the NRC from 1977 to 1982 and became part of the UCS board in 1997.

“Looking at the NRC’s track record over the last decade or so, when it intervenes in particular proceedings, it almost always does so on the side of the industry,” he said. The New York Times echoed his assertion last year in an article titled, “Nuclear Regulatory Commission Criticized for Industry Ties,” which provided multiple examples of the NRC bending its own rules to please the nuclear industry.

According to Roger Hannah, Senior Public Affairs Officer of the NRC, the final decision on Crystal River’s license renewal is still pending. The NRC still needs a better understanding of the Crystal River technical staff’s plan on taking the appropriate steps to repair the plant and ensure that it will meet safety standards over the next 20 years.

Picking Up The Tab

In the process of routine maintenance, Progress Energy opted for the D.I.Y. route, trying to save some change ($15 million, to be precise). Unfortunately, the maintenance didn’t go as smoothly as anticipated. The containment wall sprouted a 42-inch-long crack. And in the process of repairing that crack, the wall cracked again. And, predictably, trying to fix that crack birthed another.

Upon discovery of these cracks, Progress Energy temporarily retired the plant and, at the time, ensured the public that their neighborhood nuclear facility would be back online in early 2011.

Early 2011 turned into 2014. With the plant’s original license expiatory year just two years from the currently projected repair completion, is it even worth the $2.5 billion repair bill?

While most of it will be covered by Progress Energy’s insurance, local ratepayers may still end up forking over a hefty sum. Progress Energy spokeswoman Suzanne Grant said the company is still working through the numbers with Nuclear Electric Insurance Limited (NEIL), their insurance provider, and could not yet provide an accurate estimate of the customers’ portion of the bill. Progress Energy believes NEIL will cover at least three quarters of the total bill; some quick number crunching leaves the ratepayers with a maximum tab of $625 million.

Through 2012, ratepayers won’t see any hint of these charges on their electricity bill. And they won’t until 2013, if and when the Public Service Commission approves a rate increase.

Tweaking the Rules

With every license renewal, the NRC compiles a comprehensive Environmental Impact Statement assessing and accounting for potential environmental risks for the 20-year extension period. According to Crystal River’s report, Progress Energy has considered other options – coal, natural gas or a combination of the two. There’s also a no-action alternative in which Crystal River’s license would not be renewed.

The NRC vies for a license renewal on the existing nuclear plant as the best option, claiming that the significance of environmental impacts from reopening the Crystal River plant would be “small,” meaning that they are “not detectable or are so minor” that they wouldn’t “noticeably alter any important attribute” of the geographic, biophysical and social environment.

“In evaluating nuclear plants, the NRC sees some environmental issues and health hazards as simply something that is just an accepted fact in dealing with nuclear power,” said Mary Olson, Director of the Southeast Office of the Nuclear Resource and Information Service (NIRS). NIRS is the information and networking center for environmental organizations concerned about nuclear power and sustainable energy issues.

Yankee Rowe, a nuclear facility in Massachusetts, was one of the first facilities to request a license renewal. However, it didn’t meet the NRC’s standards for renewal at the time: it was not even in compliance with its existing license, which was one of the two requirements for license renewal. The rejection alarmed the nuclear industry and operators of another plant in Minnesota, who fought back, claiming the NRC’s renewal requirements examined a time period that extended beyond relevancy, making license renewal uneconomical.

“[The NRC] realized if Yankee Rowe couldn’t meet [rules for extending licenses], other reactors couldn’t meet it either,” Olson said. Yankee Rowe, just scathed by the NRC’s blade of rejection, ended up shutting down. This close call was a little too close, and the NRC became introspective.

In 1995, the NRC went in and tinkered with their rules a little bit. Just a tad. One new, albeit very easily overlooked, amendment found its place in a mere footnote. In said footnote, the NRC acknowledged that per each commercial nuclear reactor granted its 20-year license extension, 12 people are expected to die from cancer as a direct result of normal operation and radiation releases.

In the scramble to address the energy crisis, politicians are starting to throw nuclear in with other “green” options like solar and wind technology. Sure, the nuclear plant itself doesn’t emit carbon gasses, but that’s not the only thing to be accounted for when assessing environmental impact – Olson points out that environmental and human health risks, including those associated with the transportation of uranium, must be examined as well.

Nuclear plant workers and neighbors experience only a small percentage of additional radiation exposure – about one extra millirem of radiation on top of the estimated national average of 310 millirem per year.

However, radiation has the potential to escape in just about every step of production, from the uranium mines to the neighborhoods surrounding a nuclear facility. Radioactive materials only leak out in small amounts during routine and proper plant operation, but in heaping proportions if and when accidents occur. Radiation is known to cause an increased rate of cancer, infant mortality and birth defects, including mental retardation. But the effects of radiation aren’t evident until decades after exposure, making them difficult to trace.

In With the Old, In With the New

Progress Energy doesn’t just want to keep the Crystal River station chugging along longer; they want another entirely new facility as well.

Progress Energy has their eye on 5,000 acres, including 765 acres of wetland, just southwest of Gainesville in Levy County. In the first stages of planning the Levy facility, Progress Energy was only looking at one reactor with an estimated cost of $2.5 to $3.5 billion. Now, after nearly six years and a projected $14.5 to $19 billion dollars added to the bill, Progress Energy is preparing for two 1,100 MW reactors. These two reactors would provide energy to about 900,000 homes, with the first of the two reactors set to come online in 2021.

And although construction is yet to begin, local ratepayers are already getting charged.

Thanks to Florida’s Nuclear Construction Cost Recovery (NCCR) law established in 2006, utilities are allowed to collect preconstruction and construction costs from ratepayers prior to the planned facility’s operation. In 2010, the average Progress Energy customer shelled out an additional $89.52 over the year as part of the Levy County reactors’ preconstruction costs. Progress Energy has since filed with the Florida Public Service Commission to lower that figure to $61.68 for 2012.

Since its initiation in 2006, the Levy County project’s price tag has only inflated. By 2021, the average 1,100 kWh residential customer will be paying an additional $59.83 per month to fund the construction.

Progress Energy communications specialist Rob Sumner said that despite the cost, Progress Energy still plans on moving forward with the Levy County plant. Besides, even if they were to halt all future plans for the Levy facility this very second, they’d be stepping away with a hefty, customer-paid and non-refundable $150 million. This no-refund policy is tucked away in the fine print of the NCCR law.

Progress Energy still has some hurdles to jump before breaking ground for construction on the Levy County nuclear plant. The NRC is currently working on compiling the proposed facility’s Environmental Impact Statement, which has a tentative completion date of late this year or early next year, Hannah explained. “We haven’t even scheduled the [final] hearing yet. We’re three steps away from the final decision.”

Three steps and many months away, but Progress Energy customers are already feeling the strain.

“It’s certainly not fair to those customers, whether residential or business customers, who won’t be around when the plant might start up,” Bradford said, “it’s also not fair to low-income customers in Progress Energy’s territory who have more urgent uses for the money, like rent and food.”

“Another nuclear plant in Florida is affirmatively unnecessary,” he added, aptly summing up the position of the NIRS and a host of other environmental organizations and activists.

Moving Beyond Nuclear

“We not only don’t need nuclear power at all, but we can actually create a flat line in the demand for energy in the state,” said Mandy Hancock, High Risk Energy Organizer for the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy (SACE).

Hancock and Bradford both vie for efficiency as the cheapest energy solution. Not quite the same as conservation, “efficiency” simply translates to using less energy by means of adopting more efficient technology and building standards.

Efficient use of the “right” kind of energy is also key. Bradford suggests turning to “some renewables and natural gas” as supplements. Yet here we are, the Sunshine State itself, still devoid of a Renewable Portfolio Standard, which would require a certain portion of the state’s energy to be generated from renewable sources by a set date.

According to an in-depth analysis conducted by Energy Savvy, a software company dedicated to making energy efficiency easy and widely accessible, money spent on a new nuclear plant is better spent retrofitting homes. The average levelized cost of electricity generated by a new nuclear plant is about $0.08 per kWh. Over a standard 40-year licensing period, without renewal, this plant would cost about $40 billion. Retrofitting 1.6 million homes, on the other hand, would only cost about $20 million.

“The problem is not that we don’t have the technology; the problem is that we don’t have the political will to really pursue aggressive energy efficiency measures,” Hancock said.

“It’s absolutely not too late for the Levy County facility to be stopped,” Olson confidently added.