This year, Florida Power Corp.'s nuclear power plant was out of commission for more than six months.
It isn't unusual for repairs and maintenance to require occasional reactor shutdowns. But the long downtime reflects a troubled year at the Crystal River plant.
In 12 months, the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission:
Fined the company $500,000 for violations at Crystal River (the largest amount levied against the plant since it started operating in 1977).
Gave the plant the lowest performance rating of 18 plants in the Southeast.
Warned Florida Power that the "safety culture" at the plant should improve.
"Certainly, 1996 is not going to be a year that we're going to look back and brag about," said Pat Beard, the company's head of nuclear operations. In December, Beard, 60, announced that he will retire in April, a year earlier than he had planned.
At the time of the announcement, Florida Power president Joe Richardson indicated that in light of the plant's recent troubles _ and its newly drafted plans for corrective actions _ now might be the time for change.
"There is a sense that this is a good time to get a new, fresh perspective into the management," Richardson said.
Repeatedly during the year, nuclear regulators criticized the plant's management oversight, its engineering division and employees adherence to regulatory requirements. The NRC identified these and other systemic problems in July when it fined the company $500,000, among the largest fines ever levied against a U.S. nuclear facility.
The penalty, and much of the NRC's scrutiny, stemmed from the agency's investigation into a control-room test in September 1994 that pushed a crucial safety system called the make-up tank beyond acceptable limits.
The company labeled the incident an unauthorized test and eventually disciplined six workers on the control-room shift, firing the supervisor and assistant supervisor, and reprimanding others or stripping them of their nuclear operators' licenses.
The two men who were fired, former supervisor David Fields and former assistant supervisor Robert Weiss, later said the company targeted them because they identified mistaken calculations that in an emergency situation could have hindered prevention of a nuclear disaster.
Frustrated because they said the NRC did not take their criticisms seriously enough, Fields, Weiss, and another plant operator, Jack D. Stewart, took their case outside the nuclear realm.
In February, the three filed a complaint against Florida Power with the U.S. Department of Labor. As their complaint made its way through the legal system, the NRC was investigating their criticisms of plant managers, who they said ordered them to use dangerously incorrect calculations in operating the system.
Those investigations led to violations. And the violations led to fines.
At the same time, the NRC did not clear Fields or Weiss from blame.
This month, their attorney faced off with Florida Power's attorney in a Tampa courtroom, before federal Administrative Law Judge David W. DiNardi.
Florida Power has filed a motion to dismiss the case, but if DiNardi denies the motion, the case could go to trial next year.
Meanwhile, the Crystal River plant remains shut down, as it has been since Sept. 2 when the company decided to repair a pipe supplying oil to a turbine generator.
Later in September, the plant grabbed headlines after mechanics found a penny lodged inside a lube-oil strainer in an important safety system. The NRC ordered an investigation, and officials said at the time they suspected sabotage. Later, they reasoned that the coin most likely ended up inside the pipe because a worker had put the pipe in his pocket, where he also carried coins, before replacing it.
Even so, the plant's standing with the NRC remains weak.
This month, one of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission's five members came from Washington to Crystal River to speak with plant managers in person.
Early in 1997, the NRC is to update its "watched plant" list. If Crystal River lands on the list, it could face heightened inspections and the possibility of being ordered shut down.
Beard, in his last days as the company's chief nuclear officer, said that he remains confident the plant's employees will bounce back.
In tough times, he said recently, an old saying comes to mind:
"In the hours of darkest defeat lies the greatest opportunity."
_ Information from Times files was used in this report.