Florida city hopes manatees fill void left by retired nuclear plant

Thu Feb 14, 2013 1:14pm EST
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By Saundra Amrhein

CRYSTAL RIVER, Florida (Reuters) - The decision earlier this month to retire a nuclear plant near this small Florida city - potentially costing hundreds of jobs and lost revenue - has residents banking on the lure of the endangered manatee.

"We'll always have tourism, we'll always have manatees. That's a huge draw," said Michele Bunts, manager of Cracker's Bar, Grill & Tiki, as employees wiped down tables in preparation for the lunch crowd on the deck overlooking the sparkling blue waters of Kings Bay, the headwaters of Crystal River.

As the nation's only place where people can legally swim with manatees, Crystal River draws tourists from around the world for a chance to snorkel with the sea cows, which can be 10 feet long and weigh between 800 and 1,200 lbs (364 to 545 kg). Tourists also enjoy the chance to spot the creatures from a boat or land.

Bunts expects that her restaurant, a popular watering hole in this central-west Florida city of about 4,000 people, could see a decline in customers in the wake of Duke Energy Corp's announcement last week that it will retire the plant. Like many of her fellow residents, she hopes that tourists flocking to see the manatees will make up the difference in lost revenue.

Residents will have some time to absorb the impact as the process of decommissioning the nuclear plant takes decades, said Sterling Ivey, spokesman for Progress Energy Florida, a subsidiary of Duke. "It's not like a factory where we lock the doors and everybody gets a pink slip," he said.

The Crystal River nuclear plant had been in operation since 1977, helping serve Duke's 1.6 million Florida customers. It had already been shut down and offline since 2009 due to structural damage during upgrades to the unit's steam generators.

About 600 people could lose their jobs once the plant is eventually retired, but there will be plenty of work for at least the next five to seven years, said Ivey. The plant would then transition into a "mothballed-type status" for another 20 to 25 years.

The Kings Bay manatee refuge, located about 80 miles north of Tampa, lies about 8 miles south of the nuclear plant complex.   Continued...

Manatees gather near the outlet where Florida Power & Light Company (FPL) pipes warm the water, at an inactive power plant undergoing renovation works in Riviera Beach, Florida in this January 7, 2010, file photo. REUTERS/Carlos Barria/Files