Settlement likely to end inquiries into Duke Energy nuclear plants

A plan to upgrade the reactor at Crystal River in 2009 resulted in cracks to the containment wall. An attempt to fix those cracks resulted in more cracks and the shutting down of the plant.
A plan to upgrade the reactor at Crystal River in 2009 resulted in cracks to the containment wall. An attempt to fix those cracks resulted in more cracks and the shutting down of the plant.
Published Feb. 11, 2014

As it stands, the whole truth will never officially come out.

Duke Energy will not have to explain how a do-it-yourself upgrade project ruined a perfectly fine nuclear power plant in Crystal River.

Duke will not have to answer more questions about spending hundreds of millions planning ­— but not actually building — a new nuclear plant in Levy County.

Duke will not pay the state a financial penalty for its corporate ineptitude, nor will it have to admit any wrongdoing.

Duke will not have to defend forcing its customers to pay the better part of $3 billion in return for not even a single kilowatt of nuclear power, nor why it should get to keep the $250 million it made on the two nuclear projects.

Unless something terribly unexpected happens, the state Public Service Commission will most likely rubber stamp a settlement on Wednesday that will close the door on further inquiry.

Expect no apologies. Despite the kind of multibillion dollar blunders that would in other contexts prompt congressional hearings, there will be no discussion of highly relevant documents and testimony that show Duke ignored:

• Its own internal study that warned of "huge" risks of trying to self-manage the Crystal River upgrade, rather than employing outside companies with a solid track record of executing the complicated task.

• A report from internationally respected engineers that supported a key step in the Crystal River upgrade that the utility didn't follow.

• Warnings from experienced, on-scene workers on exactly the same issue.

That's just what has come out so far.

"There absolutely should be hearings," said state Rep. Dwight Dudley, D-St. Petersburg, who opposes the settlement. "We just don't know enough."

The financial unraveling at the Crystal River plant started with an attempt to save $15 million.

Progress Energy, which merged with Duke Energy last year, wanted to replace the old steam generators inside the reactor's containment wall starting in 2009, an upgrade successfully completed at 34 other plants.

The plan: save the money by self-managing the work — something no other utility had ever tried.

Progress Energy knew that going it alone was risky.

The company's lack of expertise and experience "outweigh strengths and opportunities," an internal Progress report said in 2004. "Those weaknesses cannot be changed to strengths in sufficient time to plan and implement'' the project.

Progress pushed on anyway.

To help develop a plan, the utility hired engineering firm Sargent & Lundy, which had never done this type of work before. The utility opted to cut a 27-by-27-foot hole in the 187-foot-tall containment building, the final barrier keeping deadly radiation from the reactor from reaching the atmosphere. Inside the concrete walls, 426 steel "tendons'' tighten around the structure, reinforcing its strength.

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Sargent & Lundy recommended Progress loosen 97 tendons before cutting into the wall.

Too many, Progress said.

The next proposal: 74, within the range loosened at other plants.

But John Holliday, a contract employee for Progress in charge of the work on the containment building, wasn't satisfied. "De-tensioning the tendons is a very expensive and time-consuming effort," he said.

The final proposal: loosen 65 tendons.

The Tampa Bay Times noted several of these findings in a series of investigations two years ago, but a document obtained just last week showed Progress received an evaluation of the tendon procedure from Bechtel, an internationally renowned engineering firm.

According to that document, Progress hired Bechtel, which had handled most of the other steam generator projects across the country, for a third party review.

Bechtel agreed that 65 tendons was adequate.

"Ideally, it is better to detension as many tendons as possible to bring the containment structure to as much of a stress-free state as possible," Bechtel concluded in its report. "S&L's preliminary decision to remove/detension 30 vertical tendons and 35 hoop tendons appears to be in the right ballpark."

Even then, Progress Energy decided to loosen a total of just 27 tendons. And it hired a company to cut into the nuclear containment wall that had never done that work.

The red flags didn't stop:

"I just want to reiterate my concern," Charles Hovey, an experienced construction foreman who had worked on similar projects, said in an email to a supervisor in March 2009. Progress, he observed, planned to use a different procedure to loosen the tendons.

"I have never heard of it being done like this before," he said. "I just want to express my concerns to you one last time.''

Hovey's plea was followed by other warnings.

"Why are we doing tendons different here than all other jobs?" site supervisor John Marshall asked in an e-mail sent in March 2009 to Sam Franks, a Bechtel supervisor.

The building cracked when workers began cutting. An attempt to fix the crack and bring the plant back online resulted in more cracks. Duke Energy decided this year to permanently close the plant.

Just last week, Gregory Jaczko, the immediate past chairman of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, blamed the disaster on a utility that didn't understand a job that should have been "routine."

"That's a multibillion dollar asset that had to be shut down because of improper work planning, improper understanding of how to properly do this containment retrofit," he said at a forum on Wednesday.

Progress' own investigation blamed the failure on a faulty de-tensioning procedure, though the utility concluded that no one could have foreseen the problem.

"The company sought input from numerous engineering experts — internally and externally — and used proven industry-accepted practices when determining how to replace the steam generators," said Heather Danenhower, a Duke spokeswoman.

"Analysis has shown that the 2009 delamination (cracking) could not have been predicted. The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission confirmed these findings."

Total cost of the debacle: more than $3 billion.

• • •

Progress was no more successful in its other nuclear initiative.

The utility wanted to build two reactors on a 5,000 acre site in Levy County, just north of the Crystal River plant.

Private financing for nuclear plants had disappeared decades earlier, as project after project went grossly over budget, failed, or was canceled. But in 2006, the Florida Legislature passed a law allowing utilities to charge customers in advance for development of new nuclear projects. The economy was booming then, generating capacity was becoming strained, and the state wanted to diversify its energy mix.

Progress took advantage of the law to announce the Levy project. It said it would cost $4 billion to $6 billion and come online in 2016.

Without any of the necessary federal approvals, Progress immediately started spending its customers' money. It bought land for the new plant. It signed up a contractor. It paid to get to the front of the line for nuclear components and purchased items that took long periods to deliver.

It spent hundreds of millions, each expenditure deemed "prudent'' by the PSC.

By 2009, the plan was in trouble.

The economy fell into the Great Recession. Progress could find no co-owners to help shoulder the financial load. Federal regulators rejected an essential part of the utility's go-fast plan, a request for a Limited Work Authorization that would have allowed the company to begin site work. Federal loan guarantees Progress hoped to get went instead to nuclear projects in Georgia and South Carolina. Natural gas prices hit historic lows.

Go-fast slowed to a dead stop. But Progress kept spending its customers money, even as it was forced to raise Levy's estimated price tag and delay the in service date.

Its last projection: $24.7 billion, coming on line in 2024.

Economic reality finally set in and Duke, now in charge, agreed as part of the Crystal River settlement to pull the plug on Levy.

But the damage was done. The utility had spent about $1 billion and racked up $300 million to $500 million in financing charges. Customers, not Duke, have to pay for that.

• • •

Duke blames Progress for the whole debacle, in particular former Progress president Bill Johnson, who was slated to lead the combined companies.

In an interview in January with the Charlotte Observer, Duke chairman Jim Rogers said Progress was troubled at the time of the merger. Rogers several times cited the nuclear projects as a major problem.

"We basically had a fixer-upper on our hands," he told the paper.

With the settlement agreement, those nuclear troubles in Florida will never get aired in public.

The settlement includes multiple, and complicated, provisions.

• Duke customers still must pay as much as $3.2 billion for expenses related to the Crystal River upgrade and the Levy plant, a number that will be reduced by whatever Duke can get for the Levy equipment it has already purchased.

• That number would have been higher but for a $762 million insurance payment for the damage and loss of Crystal River.

• The Public Counsel's Office says the settlement includes nearly $2 billion in "savings'' for Duke customers. But these are savings only an accountant could appreciate.

And for all the claimed savings, the average Duke customer's power bill next year will go up $8.24 a month.

J.R. Kelly, the state public counsel, believes Duke should have shouldered most of the $5 billion cost of the Crystal River and Levy failures.

"We felt that we had some very strong evidence to support our position," Kelly said. "But you can have the best evidence in the world and lose.

"There's no such thing as a slam dunk. We feel this settlement is good for the customers."

The odds were likely stacked against him. The Southern Alliance for Clean Energy had already failed to persuade the Florida Supreme Court to rule the nuclear advance fee unconstitutional. And Kelly knew that the same PSC that already had signed off on much of the spending on Crystal River and Levy would rule on any challenge as to who would pay.

Duke sees the settlement as a win for its customers.

"Duke Energy, through refunds to customers and insurance proceeds, has contributed approximately $1.5 billion to offset costs to customers related to the steam generator project and subsequent damage," Danenhower, the Duke spokeswoman, said.

Rep. Dudley questioned why customers have to pay for Duke's "clear negligent conduct.''

"We're not supposed to act as their insurance policy,'' he said. "They made the mistake."