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Let's take a moment to remember the time a local utility broke Tampa Bay's only nuclear plant.

The now defunct nuclear plant in Crystal River. [Times (2011)}
Published Apr. 18

More than 300 people showed up earlier this month for the ceremonial grand opening of a natural gas plant in Citrus County.

A Duke Energy president flipped a giant light switch, symbolically turning on the $1.5 billion plant, never mind that it came online last year.

The chief executive officer traveled down from the company's North Carolina headquarters. She touted the plant as highly efficient and state of the art. Construction created 3,000 temporary jobs and $600 million in economic benefits, according to a news release. The project should add about $4 million in new property taxes this year.

Duke Energy and community leaders lauded the benefits of natural gas. It's so much cleaner than burning coal, they said. True, though sitting on the same site is an even cleaner source of electricity, one crippled by hubris and rarely mentioned anymore.

The history of the now defunct Crystal River nuclear plant is worth retelling.

Ten years ago, a handful of know-it-all executives wrecked the plant in an act of colossal stupidity deserving of a permanent spot in our local business follies hall of fame. Ratepayers took a hit and so did the local environment. Burning natural gas is cleaner than burning coal, but nuclear trumps them both when it comes to emissions. No harmful gases spewing from exhaust stacks, no extra carbon dioxide, no mercury, sulfur or nitrogen oxides.

The plant could have produced electricity well into the 2030s. Instead, it sits idle, never to work again.

The debacle started with a routine, though complicated, upgrade. The nuclear plant needed new steam generators, which required removing the old ones from inside the containment building, which shields the nuclear core. Two firms bid on the work. Between them, they had successfully managed every other similar replacement project in the country, all 34. The low bid for the Crystal River job was $81 million.

Progress Energy, which owned the nuclear plant at the time, decided not to hire one of the two firms to manage the project. Instead, company officials planned to go it alone. The do-it-yourself oversight was supposed to save about $15 million.

Progress Energy deviated from the methods used at many of the other 34 nuclear plants. One example: Steel rods and 426 steel bands reinforced the thick concrete containment wall. Before cutting a hole in the wall to remove the steam generators, workers needed to loosen some of the bands, a time consuming and expensive process.

At other nuclear plants, workers with the two experienced firms avoided loosening tendons that were next to each other. They also released half the tension on a band and loosened the other half later in the process.

Progress Energy planned to loosen neighboring bands and release the tension all at once. The company decided to loosen fewer bands, too.

"I have never heard of it being done like this before," a construction foreman wrote in an email to colleagues in March 2009. "I just want to express my concerns to you one last time."

A few months later, as workers cut a 25-by-27 foot hole in the wall, they discovered a crack. A later repair attempt created another crack, and a third crack eventually appeared. The estimate to repair the damage climbed above $1 billion.

Duke Energy inherited the mess when it bought Progress Energy in 2012. The following year, the company permanently closed the unit. A reckless gamble to save $15 million had ruined a perfectly good nuclear plant. Decommissioning the facility will cost a little less than $900 million.

Thanks to the botched job, ratepayers lost out on years of cheap power and our air got dirtier. A shiny new natural gas plant can't rewrite that painful reality.

Contact Graham Brink at gbrink@tampabay.com. Follow @GrahamBrink.

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