Had James Terry's idea worked, it would have saved Progress Energy $15 million.
But it didn't, and the consequences are staggering: $2.5 billion.
Progress customers will have to pay about a fourth of that.
The utility wanted to replace aging steam generators inside the thick, concrete containment building at its Crystal River nuclear power plant. The work is complex and costly.
Two companies bid on the Crystal River job. They were the only two companies that had any experience managing similar upgrades, and between them they had completed 34, all successfully.
The low bid: $81 million.
Terry, Progress' major projects manager, thought he had a better idea.
"It seemed, in my mind, that there was an opportunity . . . to lower the cost up to the point . . . that we would exclude the contractor and self-manage," Terry would later testify.
Top Progress Energy officials adopted his do-it-yourself plan.
In eschewing the expertise of the two companies that had managed every other similar steam generator replacement project in the United States, Progress became the first utility to manage the cutting of a nuclear plant containment wall on its own.
The utility did the job differently from the way it had been done in similar jobs elsewhere. And after workers used this different procedure at Crystal River, the building that shields the nuclear reactor cracked.
There was no radiation leak. But the nuclear plant has been out of service for two years. It won't generate a kilowatt of power for at least two more years. There's a chance it will never be repaired.
"It was crazy for a utility to be so arrogant to think they could take on this project," said author and physicist Kenneth Bergeron of the Sandia National Laboratories, who spent 25 years managing research on nuclear reactor safety.
"You've got executives of a utility overreaching with other people's money.''
• • •
The Crystal River nuclear accident is one of the most expensive in U.S. history. The reactor meltdown at Three Mile Island in 1979 was far more serious, but just a little more costly, $2.6 billion in today's dollars, according to the Insurance Information Institute.
On Monday, Progress Energy is expected to file its initial testimony on the Crystal River case with the state Public Service Commission, which is investigating.
"It is in effect a complex construction negligence case," said J.R. Kelly, the state public counsel, who represents consumers before the commission. "It is unlike anything that has come before the PSC. It is a case that has never occurred anywhere on Earth."
Thousands of pages of documents already filed with the PSC and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission detail what Progress hoped to accomplish – and what went wrong.
The building that shields the nuclear reactor also contains two 35-year-old steam generators. Progress wanted to replace the generators with newer, more powerful models, as other utilities have done.
In the 34 similar jobs, experts have moved things in and out in two ways. One is to use the hatch that is part of the containment building. The other is to cut a hole in the side of the building, which had been done at least 13 times, always successfully.
At Crystal River, Progress president Bill Johnson accepted a recommendation that cutting a hole would be less complicated and less expensive than using the hatch.
But in 2009, when workers cut into the 42-inch-thick wall of the Crystal River containment building, it cracked, creating what Progress officials call a "delamination.''
What is most notable about the way Progress Energy handled the project is how much it contrasts with the way other utilities conducted similar work.
• All the other utilities hired either nuclear plant engineering specialists Bechtel or SGT to manage the work. As Bergeron, the physicist, put it, these firms have "proprietary methods'' Progress does not possess.
• For the engineering analysis of cutting into its containment building, Progress turned to the firm of Sargent & Lundy, which designs and engineers new nuclear plants.
In deposition in January, the public counsel investigating the causes of the cracked building asked Terry, the Progress official, if Sargent & Lundy had previous experience in the type of work done at Crystal River. The response was: "Not to my knowledge.'' He thought another Progress official had information about the firm's experience.
Sargent & Lundy officials did not return calls for comment.
• Sargent & Lundy recommended a procedure for cutting into the containment building that was different from that employed at some similar projects by Bechtel and SGT.
In his deposition, Terry said the utility noticed that the procedure was different, asked about it and was assured it was okay.
"So you asked S&L whether it mattered, and they said, 'No?' "
"That's correct," Terry responded.
He did not return calls seeking comment.
Progress asked the Times to direct all questions to its media communications office. The Times e-mailed that office a list of 18 questions related to issues raised in this story.
Progress spokeswoman Suzanne Grant responded: "This matter is subject to an open docket before the Public Service Commission. We do not comment on contested hearings.''
• • •
The issue of Progress managing the steam generator project by itself — with no previous experience — was an obvious topic of concern for Charles Rehwinkel, deputy state public counsel, who pushed Terry on the issue during the January deposition.
"It's true that within the Progress Energy system we don't have . . . we had no prior construction opening experience for steam generators," Terry responded.
But he noted that several Progress Energy employees had worked for companies that performed steam generator replacements or had assisted with those projects while employed at other utilities.
"While we did not have Progress Energy experience, we had Progress Energy project team members with experience," Terry said.
• • •
The containment building at Crystal River is of similar design to those at a number of other nuclear power plants.
The concrete is reinforced with both steel rods and 426 steel bands. The latter are called "tendons.''
After the accident, Progress officials noted in its ''root cause'' report that there was not as much steel rod reinforcement of the containment building as in some other similar buildings.
Even so, Roger Hannah, a spokesman for the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, said the agency's review of the building found that it met all requirements in terms of concrete quality and reinforcement.
"When they originally did testing of the concrete, it met all the specifications in the requirements," Hannah said.
In addition to the rods, steel tendons encircle the building. They are tightened to provide additional strength. Before workers cut into the building, the tendons had to be loosened. This is called "detensioning.''
At the San Onofre nuclear plant in California, Bechtel specified that 80 tendons be detensioned prior to cutting into the building. At Entergy Corp's two plants outside Russellville, Ark., SGT wanted 70 tendons loosened in one containment building and 56 in the other. Again, this was to be done before cutting into the buildings.
On some SGT projects, workers were told not to loosen tendons sequentially. In other words, don't do one right next to another. The workers also took off just half the tension on a tendon at first, the other half later.
An improperly detensioned building will tend to sag, which could lead to cracking.
For the Crystal River job, Sargent & Lundy sent Progress a different procedure.
• Only 27 tendons were to be detensioned before the hole was cut. An additional 38 were to be done after.
• Workers would loosen the tendons in sequential order.
• On each tendon, they would release the tension all at once.
"We specifically asked if we had a specific detension sequence that we needed to work to,'' Terry said in his deposition, "and the answer was, 'No.' And so that meant to us we could use the sequential."
Terry noted that while the sequential method Progress Energy used was "more efficient from a production standpoint," the approach used at some other plants would have been better in helping prevent cracks.
But he said Progress had no reason to believe that the cracking would occur because it had never happened at any other plant during a steam generator replacement.
"Delaminating the building was never identified as a risk item,'' Terry testified.
After the accident, Progress' own analysis of what went wrong blamed the procedure of detensioning tendons in sequential order: "A primary factor was the number of detensioned tendons that were located in a row."
• • •
The completed repairs at Crystal River, the future repairs and the cost to replace the plant's cheap power are estimated to cost more than $2.5 billion. Bill Johnson, president and chief executive officer of Progress Energy, has said he believes insurance will cover much of that cost.
Meanwhile, Progress is trying to figure out how exactly to do the repairs. Things have not gone well. The company fixed the initial crack, but the containment building developed another one when workers retightened the tendons.
Company officials have gone back to the drawing board. No final decision on how to repair the building has been made. But this time, whatever Progress does, it will not be going it alone.
The utility has hired a number of consultants.
Among them: Bechtel.
Times researcher Natalie Watson contributed to this report. Ivan Penn can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 892-2332. Follow him on Twitter (@Consumers_Edge) and find the Consumer's Edge on Facebook.