Rare look inside troubled Crystal River Nuclear Power Plant

7:11 PM, Jun 14, 2011   |    comments
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CRYSTAL RIVER, Florida -- Stepping into the Crystal River Nuclear Power Plant can make you feel like you've stepped back in time.

It was built in the 1970's and, in many ways, it still looks like it. The control room is a wall filled with lights and handles, spinning dials and bouncing needle meters. 

It's old school on the outside, but the technology has been updated on the inside. There are several layers of heavily armed security. Several stations test each vistor or worker for radiation exposure.

Still, officials say the design of the plant itself, built atop a 31-foot berm, makes it a safe.

Often shrouded in mystery, if not fear, Progress Energy decided this was the right time to let people see what they do. It was first time such a visit has been allowed since the September 11th attacks of 2001.

"We found that the more people are aware of what we do, they'll have confidence in the safety of both our business and our industry," said the site's vice president, Jon Franke.

The Crystal River plant is currently offline. It has been shut down for more than a year and a half now, since cracks were discovered in the 42" concrete containment wall surrounding its reactor. It's 177 fuel bundles, filled with fuel rods, now sit idle in a huge indoor cooling pool 43-feet deep. The water is blue and crystal clear.

During repairs, more cracks were discovered.

Repair costs are now at more than $150 million. The financial decision to fixit , or just shut it down, is still being calculated.

"We know there are ways to make the repairs," says Franke. "We'll balance that decision with replacement and we'll do what's right for our customers."

Progress Energy officials say they understand all of this can be unsettling for the more than one million residents who live within 50 miles of the plant, especially in light of the recent developements at the nuclear plant in Japan following the earthquake and tsunami.

"These are not chocolate factories. They're hazardous facilities that can take out very large tracks of land and water and poison them virtually forever," says Paul Gunter, a spokesman for the anti-nuclear group Beyond Nuclear. "As a consequence, we believe that Crystal River should not be allowed to restart."

But Progress Energy officials say the Crystal River plant is built to withstand a 40.5-foot storm surge, a category 5 hurricane, and even a direct hit form an airplane.

The cracks, they say, were found when the plant was already taken offline for repairs. There was never a threat, they say, to the public's safety. With multiple backup systems it is not, they insist, another Japan waiting to happen.

For now, Progress Energy is still moving forward with an application to renew its nuclear license in 2016. That license would allow them to operate for another 20 years.

In the meantime, they continue to plan for upgrades that would actually increase the nuclear division's output, but the descision of whether to move forward with repairs or close the nuclear part of the Crystal River facility could come within the next few weeks.

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