On July 26, monitors detected something amiss in the already crippled building that shields the reactor at Progress Energy's nuclear plant. The pile of shattered concrete outside meant the utility faced a new problem.
The building was still falling apart — a development Progress was in no hurry to reveal to state regulators.
The incident marked the third time since 2009 that the containment building at the Crystal River plant had suffered major structural damage.
Within the nuclear power industry, Progress' fumbling efforts to fix the plant raise crucial questions: Can the building be safely repaired? Or, as critics maintain, should it be torn down and replaced?
Tearing it down would likely further delay restarting the reactor, which hasn't operated since 2009. Every year it's offline adds more than $300 million just in fuel charges.
The projected bill already tops $2.5 billion, rivaling that of the Three Mile Island disaster in Pennsylvania in 1979 and making it one of the most costly nuclear incidents in U.S. history. Progress wants its customers to pay a quarter of the cost.
That the building continues to develop structural flaws raises the stakes on Progress' next move .
"Of course, more (cracks) is a bad thing," said John Kindinger, a mechanical and nuclear engineer who worked on a reactor in Midland, Mich., that is similar in design to the Crystal River one. "Once you find one problem, then the questions proliferate. There is a point when the questions become overwhelming to fix."
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The third crack is documented in a report of Nuclear Regulatory Commission inspectors who were conducting their quarterly review of operations at the Crystal River plant in Citrus County. They examined Progress' efforts to deal with the first two cracks — one from October 2009 and one from March of this year.
On July 26, according to the NRC report, "monitors indicated a high level of acoustic activity'' in the containment building. Progress workers found an area of broken concrete 3 to 4 feet wide and 12 feet long.
On Aug. 8, Progress gave an update on the situation at Crystal River to Florida's Public Service Commission, which is reviewing how much, if any, of the charges related to the repair can be passed on to customers.
Progress made no mention of a possible third crack.
Yet, on the same day, Progress filed its annual report to the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission. In that report, the utility said "additional cracking or delaminations may have occurred or could occur during the repair process."
Staff of the Public Service Commission did not hear about the third crack until Oct. 18, when a Progress engineer, John Holliday, made passing reference to it in a deposition. He was asked about his role in the Crystal River repair after the first crack shut down the plant in 2009.
"We've had two more" cracks, Holliday said. "Both of those (cracks) are larger" than the first.
Progress did not make written notification of the third crack to the PSC until last week, one day after the St. Petersburg Times asked the utility about the incident.
Yet by Aug. 20, Progress had finished a four-day process to reduce stress on the building, according to the NRC report. And before Sept. 30, inspections had found "surface cracks'' near the area from which the concrete had fallen and revealed "numerous indications consistent with cracking or delamination within the concrete wall.''
Progress had also "installed temporary radial anchor bolts" to prevent the problem from spreading, according to the NRC.
That Progress did not reveal the third crack during the Aug. 8 status update is "an area of concern'' to the PSC, said spokeswoman Cindy Muir.
Suzanne Grant, a Progress spokeswoman, said the utility "just confirmed the delamination recently."
"Engineers spent months conducting extensive testing ... to determine the extent of the condition," Grant said in an email to the Times. "That investigation and analysis concluded a few days ago. Now, with all the facts available, we presented a formal update to the PSC."
Progress did not describe the third crack as bad news. Its report to the PSC last week said it "validates decisions announced in June 2011 regarding the company's containment repair plan'' to replace all of the walls in the broken building.
The plan, Progress said, would adequately fix the third crack.
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Six 42-inch-thick concrete panels form the walls of the containment building — the final barrier against deadly radiation escaping into the atmosphere during an accident. Three of those panels have suffered serious cracking, or "delaminations'' in engineer-speak.
Panel 3 broke in October 2009, as workers cut a 25-by-27-foot hole in the concrete wall to replace steam generators inside the building.
Panel 5 broke in March after Progress repaired panel 3.
Panel 1 broke in July, while Progress tried to figure out how to repair panel 5.
The sequence of events leads a nuclear engineer with the Union of Concerned Scientists to question Progress' competence.
"It was broken initially,'' said Dave Lochbaum, a frequent critic of the nuclear industry. "After very careful review, it was broken, again.
"Since we don't seem to understand that containment (building), there's not a lot of confidence that repairs will work. It doesn't seem that we've gotten that success path outlined."
Progress Energy has said no one could have predicted or prevented the problems at the Crystal River nuclear plant.
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Progress' latest plan, to replace all six panels with stronger ones, has never before been attempted. That would continue a pattern of costly firsts that has marked the project from the outset.
• Progress was the first U.S. utility to self-manage this kind of steam generator replacement, believing that doing so would save money. Two engineering firms, Bechtel Corp. and SGT, successfully completed all 34 previous jobs. Progress' project was the first to fail.
• Progress used a different procedure to cut into the containment building. Despite warnings from on-site contract workers, it went ahead with its plans. Delaminations did not occur during any of the previous steam generator replacements.
• Progress attempted a first-of-its-kind repair. It failed; in fact, it led to the second crack.
• Progress' repair plan — replacing all six containment building panels, one of which is already in place — has also never before been attempted.
Critics say Progress' plan is a bad idea. They argue the entire 35-year-old containment building needs to go.
Lochbaum, of the Union of Concerned Scientists, said a new reactor building would help ensure the integrity of the plant "so we can stop having problems every six months or so."
The Crystal River reactor building has a history of structural weakness. It cracked during construction in 1976. That flaw turned up in the dome atop the building. Engineers blamed a lack of steel reinforcement in the concrete. So more reinforcement was added to the dome when it was repaired. None was added to the walls.
While some concrete containment buildings have as many as four layers of steel reinforcement in the walls, Crystal River has just one.
"In fact, there's almost no normal reinforcing in that wall," Dan Jopling, a Progress engineer and manager who helped oversee the steam generator project, told the state in a deposition.
In depositions following the 2009 accident, Progress officials said they didn't think there was any risk of it cracking when they cut into the building to replace the steam generators.
All of the troubles with the Crystal River reactor building indicate that Progress should not attempt to repair it, said Arnie Gundersen, a former nuclear industry vice president and current chief nuclear engineer for Fairewinds Associates Inc., an energy consulting firm.
"I've always said that if you want to keep Crystal River, the best thing to have done — even when the first (recent) crack developed — was knock it down and start fresh," Gundersen said.
Kindinger, a noted expert with the American Nuclear Society who has reviewed containment building issues, generally agrees with Progress' plan to replace the six concrete panels, leaving only the steel supports. But the question, he said, is cost.
"It's an economic problem," Kindinger said. "What can they do at an affordable price?"
To that point, Gundersen said the cost to build a new structure would not be much different than the cost of Progress' plan to fix the existing one, which could become a never-ending process.
"They're going to chase cracks for years," Gundersen said. "They're going to be chasing cracks until they completely destroy the containment and build a new one."
The construction cost of a brand new building might be about the same as repairing the old one. But replacing the building entirely could further delay restarting the plant. Each year the plant is offline currently costs at least $300 million to replace the cheap electricity the nuclear plant used to generate.
As it stands, Progress customers are paying some of that cost in their monthly bills. The price tag for customers' part of the fuel bill so far: $670 million.
Ivan Penn can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 892-2332.