For more than a decade, Progress Energy Florida had a serious flaw in the safety procedures at its Crystal River nuclear plant.
If a major radiation leak had occurred, nearby communities might not have found out "in a timely manner," according to a U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission report issued to the nation's nuclear plants this week.
The NRC described the oversight as being of "low to moderate risk." It went on to say that a key part of the problem was a lack of training for use of the radiation detection equipment.
"Personnel were not knowledgeable about the design and operation of the radiation monitors," the commission report stated.
If a nuclear plant suffers a major radiation leak, the utility is required to have procedures for notifying the public so local authorities can order evacuations.
The procedure that Progress Energy wrote set the amount of radiation that would trigger a warning at a higher level than what the monitors could ever indicate, according to the NRC. So if the levels ever reached that high, it might not have been immediately clear to issue a warning to the community.
The problem could have been solved two ways: Rewrite the procedures to lower the radiation level that triggers a warning or use monitors that could measure the higher levels.
There was no indication that any radiation went undetected at Crystal River, threatening public health. But had there been a major release of radiation into the community, workers at the plant would have had to rely on their knowledge, experience or some other indicator rather than the monitoring system to warn local authorities to evacuate residents, the NRC said.
"There are other ways to get some information," NRC spokesman Roger Hannah said. But "they did not have equipment that could provide them information they needed."
Dave Lochbaum, a nuclear engineer with the Union of Concerned Scientists, said the problem is something Progress Energy Florida, the local subsidiary of Duke Energy that runs the plant, should have caught long ago. He said while it is fortunate that nothing happened, a major leak could have been devastating.
"When you hit a tree, it's a little late to find out you have a hole in your airbag," Lochbaum said.
The problem with the monitoring procedure and equipment at the Crystal River plant dates to June 2000, when Progress Energy Florida changed its procedures to meet new standards.
Progress Energy should have caught the problem earlier, according to federal regulators.
An NRC inspection report stated that "there were several opportunities to identify the . . . error" — two from the lesson of other plants in May 2008 and September 2010, and a third when Progress Energy revised its procedures in July 2010.
Heather Danenhower, a spokeswoman for the Crystal River plant, said Progress Energy Florida eventually fixed the problem when workers discovered that their procedures did not match the ability of their equipment to give proper warnings.
"This procedure issue did not pose a public health or safety concern," Danenhower said. "The plant would have needed to sustain multiple failures during a real emergency for this circumstance to have any impact.
"Since the plant went into service in 1977, it has never needed to declare a 'General Emergency' — the most significant of four emergency classifications."
The Nuclear Regulatory Commission notice sent out Tuesday identified two other plants with the same flaw, the Kewaunee nuclear plant in Wisconsin and the Prairie Island nuclear plant in Minnesota. Progress Energy Florida will not be fined for the oversight. The notice was a warning to other nuclear operators to avoid similar problems.
The Crystal River plant, which has been offline since 2009, is being retired.
During an upgrade project that fall to replace old steam generators, the nuclear plant reactor's 42-inch thick concrete containment building cracked.
Progress Energy attempted to bring the reactor back in service in March 2011 after repairing the first crack. However, more cracks were found in the containment building. Duke Power, which acquired Progress Energy last July, announced earlier this month that it would permanently close the plant.
Federal and state regulators are reviewing Duke Energy's plans for retiring the plant, the first nuclear plant to close in Florida and the first major one in the southeast United States.
Ivan Penn can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 892-2332.