CR Dry-Cask Storage Facility

In an effort to reduce CR3’s physical and financial footprints at the complex, Duke will also reduce the size of its current spent fuel containment site by transporting massive containers of used fuel assemblies to an onsite, 2-and-a-half-acre dry-cask storage facility, pictured here.

Terry Hobbs’ relationship to his plant is practically nuclear.

Hobbs first came to Crystal River in 2005 to oversee operations at the Crystal River nuclear plant. Now he’s overseeing its retirement — and after that?

“We’ll see,” Hobbs said, both about his future and about Duke’s long-term plans for the site.

The retirement effort, formally known as decommissioning, was announced in February 2013 after the now 40-year-old plant suffered damage to a containment wall during a planned outage and upgrade in 2009 and again in 2011. Four years later, the billion-dollar, multidecade effort is well underway, but nowhere near done.

Decommissioning general manager Terry Hobbs

Decommissioning General Manager Terry Hobbs is one of 70 Duke employees handling CR3’s decommissioning.

Like saving money in a 401(k), Duke collected a portion of its customers’ utility payments between 1977 and 2001 to put toward a trust fund which will pay for the $1.18 billion decommissioning.

Duke expects the trust fund, which was at $730 million as of June, will be adequately stocked to decommission the plant, saving its customers a rate increase, Hobbs said.

“We are very confident we do not need to go back and ask for additional funds from our customers,” he said.

Duke must report its decommissioning cost estimates to the Florida Public Service Commission via a third-party assessor on a five-year basis to make sure it’s not overlooking any expenses.

In August 2015, crews began building the dry-cask storage facility — a pair of concrete, mausoleum-like buildings with 39 chambers atop an elevated, flood-proof site — that will contain used nuclear fuel assemblies, part of a process known as SAFSTOR. In May 2017, that work was finished, and a month later, workers began moving fuel from the plant’s fuel pool into the dry casks. 

“It is a very controlled engineering process,” Hobbs said about the process of moving fuel assemblies from the fuel pool into dry storage. Of particular concern to specialists overseeing the transfer is heat — the levels of heat in the fuel pool and the levels of heat in the dry casks. Assemblies are placed in the casks in specific configurations according to their heat levels, Hobbs said.

The fuel assemblies are 14 feet long, 9 inches wide and contain 208 fuel rods, which have pencil-eraser-sized pellets of uranium inside.

“They are very radioactive,” Hobbs said.

The assemblies that have not been moved into storage are stored in a 43-foot-deep, stainless-steel pool underneath 25-30 feet of water, which keeps the fuel cool and provides a radiation shield, Hobbs said.

The transfer is expected to be complete in early 2018. After that, the fuel will remain in dry-cask storage at the site until it is moved to a permanent resting place with the help of the Department of Energy in 2036. 

That will also allow Duke to cut down on its nuclear supervision costs, like security, on which it now spends $12 million each year. The company estimates it will be able to reduce that $12 million annual expenditure to approximately $3.4 million.

“We don’t pose any threat to anyone outside our facility,” said Hobbs, who is one of 70 Duke employees handling CR3’s decommissioning.

Supervised by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, or NRC, the decommissioning and storage process allows radioactivity to decay naturally over time before workers can safety and inexpensively haul it away.

“What I need is them off our property in Citrus County,” Hobbs said of the fuel assemblies.

Duke is also in the process of ridding itself of pipes, oil, chemicals, cooling water and other equipment at the plant. The equipment is inspected for radioactivity and other contaminants before being systematically and safely dismantled and shipped off for burial at privately run, federally licensed sites elsewhere in the U.S.

“We have sent a lot of equipment out of here, mostly to Utah, for burial,” Hobbs said.

Once radioactivity is at residual levels, the NRC will terminate CR3’s operating license — right now, a move expected in 2073. Duke will then demolish the 200-acre plant and restore most of the 4,700-acre site back to an almost-natural state in 2074.

“We would no longer need a license because there’s no longer any fuel or radioactive waste out here,” Hobbs said. “However, those dates are fluid.”

Duke paid $183 million to construct the dry-cask facility. About $78 million will come from the existing Nuclear Decommissioning Trust Fund. Shareholders and customers will pay for the remaining $105 million, Duke spokeswoman Heather Danenhower said.

“Our decision was based mostly on an economical line and what’s best for the customers as far as the amount of people needed to continue the systems that maintain the spent-fuel pool,” she said.

Duke is seeking to recover a majority of the $183 million cost from the DOE, which is legally responsible for the nation’s used nuclear fuel but and has yet to build a central repository, Hobbs said.

Recovered funds from litigation for costs paid by Duke customers will be returned, and any funds recovered through litigation for costs by the trust will also be returned, the company said.

In the event that the DOE does not construct a central repository anytime soon, private companies are working on building nuclear fuel repositories in the western U.S. where other shuttered nuclear plants could send their spent fuel before DOE takes ownership.

“It could be a solution, especially from these plants like us that are shut down,” Hobbs said.

“As much as we can continue to shrink the footprint, that then benefits the customers because it keeps our costs low,” Danenhower said. “This fuel-loading campaign is a significant milestone for the nuclear plant.”

Contact Chronicle reporter Buster Thompson at 352-564-2916 or bthompson@chronicleonline.com.

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