Progress Energy can't say it wasn't warned. The company was told that its strategies were flawed at nearly every step in its effort to replace old steam generators at the Crystal River nuclear plant. Progress insists that no one could have predicted or prevented the problems — mainly the cracking of the containment building that houses the nuclear reactor and the steam generators. The St. Petersburg Times' ongoing investigation, based largely on documents from Progress, the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission and state agencies, has detailed multiple warnings prior to the utility's critical decisions. Ivan Penn, Times Staff Writer
The first warning
Progress' own internal study said that the company needed to hire an experienced general contractor to manage the project.
After accepting bids from the two firms that had managed all of the other steam generator replacement projects in the country, Progress decided to manage the project itself, hoping to save as much as $27.9 million.
A subsequent Progress analysis listed 25 threats and weaknesses, which the company later decided it could overcome.
The second warning
In March 2009, six months before Progress started the upgrade, contractors who had worked on similar projects warned the utility that its procedure for cutting into the containment building to gain access to the steam generators was different from all similar projects nationwide.
For instance, on March 9, 2009, Charles Hovey, an experienced construction foreman who had worked on similar projects at other nuclear plants, wrote an email that said: "I have never heard of it being done like this before and I just want to express my concerns to you one last time."
Progress did not change its procedure and the concrete nuclear reactor containment building cracked.
The third warning
In December 2009, two months after workers found the crack in the reactor building, Thomas Saporito of Jupiter filed a petition with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission opposing Progress' repair plan. Saporito is a nuclear plant instrument control technician and safety whistle-blower who has worked at Crystal River.
In a January 2010 NRC public meeting, Saporito said the utility's plan to "patch" the wall with the crack would lead to more cracks. He suggested that Progress remove concrete all around the building to ensure there were no other cracks and to prevent future ones.
Progress stuck with its own approach. The building cracked a second time in March of this year and a third time in July.
The fourth warning:
Progress's current plan calls for replacing and strengthening all of the six concrete panels that make up the walls of the building (one already was replaced during the first repair).
Nuclear plant experts, including nuclear engineer Arnie Gundersen and Dave Lochbaum, a nuclear engineer with the Union of Concerned Scientists, say Progress needs to tear down the building and build a new one. Otherwise, Progress "will chase cracks for years."
Progress says it believes its plan is the best course of action.