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Nuclear nightmare, on the customers' dime

Let's assume for the moment that you have alighted on the not-so-smart idea to completely rewire your house — all by yourself. You decide to do this because, well, you are a complete idiot.

Just before starting the task, which you have never done before in addition to the fact that you know absolutely nothing about electrical work, you tell a friend, who happens to be an electrician, what you intend to do.

After your friend stops slapping you, he suggests that before you do anything involving wiring and electricity that it is really important to make sure all the power is turned off unless, of course, you will judge the success of the project by how dead you are.

Tut-tut, you think. Why bother with turning the power off? What do experts know? And as you begin the work, you stick your finger in an electrical socket. Later, at your memorial service, you are posthumously bestowed the Progress Energy Dope of the Year Award.

If you were still alive, you would probably be quite honored for being recognized by an organization that really knows how to turn a nuclear reactor into the energy business equivalent of a rusted '75 Chevy Impala sitting on blocks in the yard.

As the Times' Ivan Penn reported this week, back in 2009 Progress Energy confronted its own home repair challenge, and by the time all the dust — and steam — had settled the company was left with a nuclear reactor that churns out less juice than a hamster on a treadmill.

The job involved replacing aging steam generators at its Crystal River nuclear facility. But instead of finding people who actually know how to do this stuff — since the work does involve the potential for leaks that would give the fine people of Crystal River a third ear growing out of their foreheads — the company ignored expert advice that its methodology to handle the project was at odds with accepted industry standards. It went its own way.

This was a bit like hiring Norm from This Old House to rebuild the World Trade Center site.

Only two companies in the country had experience handling 34 similar projects — all successful. Obviously, they were clearly unqualified to handle Progress Energy's problem.

Before you could say The China Syndrome, the workers hired by the company managed to cut a 25-by-27-foot hole in the concrete building that housed the nuclear reactor. That, in turn, revealed a crack in the wall, thereby shutting everything down.

As the late physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer might say: "Ooooops."

Since then, the plant has been inoperative, and it's entirely possible it may never fire up again, unless Progress Energy wants to turn the property into Crystal River's version of a Roman ruin.

Progress Energy's bumbling managed to turn a nuclear power plant repair project into Monty Python's ramshackle Trojan Rabbit. What began as a $230 million job now has risen to $2.5 billion with the meter still running.

The botched Crystal River nuclear plant project already has made it one of the most expensive in U.S. history. But since Progress Energy operates three other nuke facilities in the Carolinas, it's possible the company could break its own record.

And you get to help, too!

Even though Progress Energy brought all the expertise of Rick Perry's debating skills to transforming the Crystal River plant into a nuclear Red Bull flugtag aircraft, the company wants the state Public Service Commission to approve a request to pass along $670 million of the repair costs to its customers.

No! Honest! Stop chortling! They really do!

Doesn't this seem a bit like billing the survivors of the Titanic because of engineering failures that led to the sinking of the ship?

Progress Energy could have done the job right in the first place. It could have hired experienced contractors with a proven track record in dealing with similar projects. It certainly could have heeded the professional opinion of experts who warned that its proposed method of handling the generator removal was untested and technically suspect.

But the company did none of those things and now it expects its customers to pay $670 million for its egregious lack of due diligence?

Progress Energy has argued that its analysis of the doomed project indicates the cracks would have occurred regardless of who did the work or what technique was used. But we'll never know for sure, will we?

What we do know is that the path Progress Energy took made it look like the Wile E. Coyote of nuclear power. And the company's clientele is expected to pay for this comedy of fusion?

If you are a Progress Energy customer, why aren't you laughing? You better hope the Public Service Commission isn't either.

Nuclear nightmare, on the customers' dime 11/10/11 [Last modified: Thursday, November 10, 2011 7:03pm]

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