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Honey, I broke the nuclear power plant

If you missed staff writer Ivan Penn's investigative piece in Sunday' St. Petersburg Times, you need to go back and read it. Carefully. (You can find it online at this address: http:// tinyurl.com/3u96hk2.) It's about a misguided decision by Progress Energy to try to repair its one and only nuclear power plant in Florida. Known as Crystal River 3, the Citrus County nuke plant has been shut down and not producing electricity since September 2009. The company thought it could save money — about $15 million — by doing the fix itself. It did not work. It created more complex and costly problems. If they made a movie out of this, it could star nuke plant employee Homer Simpson.

Now Progress Energy says it will fix the plant. But the major damage is done. The plant will remain shut down until at least 2014, which means the company's key base load producer of electricity for the Florida market will remain shuttered and producing no power for what may be close to four years.

And the total cost of fixing the plant and buying electricity from someone else that the nuke plant should be generating? About $2.5 billion.

Progress Energy's Florida customers will pay hundreds of millions of dollars of that bill.

Two firms bid to handle the original nuke project that Progress Energy fumbled. Between them, these two companies had successfully handled all 34 projects in the U.S. nuclear industry similar to Progress Energy's.

Is $15 million in savings from a do-it-yourself fix worth a $2.5 billion price tag?

Penn's story in the newspaper carried this headline: Saving millions costs billions.

It's succinct. But I prefer Honey, I broke the nuclear plant.

It's one thing for a power company to suggest replacing parts on its own truck or generator or maybe even a smaller coal or gas plant. If things go wrong, the damage is manageable. The risk to the company and the risk to ratepayers is within reason.

But this gamble by Progress Energy to take on a major repair project of its Florida nuke plant is high risk, low reward.

It raises questions:

• How does a major power company with decades of running multiple nuclear power plants (Progress Energy runs several in North Carolina) decide it's wise to take on a project to upgrade the Crystal River nuke plant without any specific experience? Who decided that risk was worth saving millions when failure could means billions to fix it?

• Progress Energy is in the last stages of being acquired by Duke Energy, a larger power company in North Carolina that also has extensive nuclear power experience. Was Progress Energy trying to low-ball the cost of a nuclear power project with a do-it-yourself plan so it could look smart and thrifty during its merger into Duke?

• The Crystal River plant is due to be shut down in 2016. Progress Energy wants to fix the plant and seek a 20-year extension of its operating life. Should we have second thoughts about this scenario?

It's almost like discovering your artificial hip has worn out. You know it will cost thousands to replace. If a scrub nurse offers to do the job for a hundred bucks, is it worth the risk?

When it comes to a big-buck nuclear plant, this never should have happened.

Robert Trigaux can be reached at trigaux@sptimes.com.

Honey, I broke the nuclear power plant 10/10/11 [Last modified: Monday, October 10, 2011 9:31pm]
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