Who's to blame for the early demise of Crystal River nuclear power plant?

Bill Johnson, the former CEO of Progress Energy, accepted a staff recommendation of a less expensive repair of the Crystal River nuclear plant. The buck stopped with him. Associated Press
Bill Johnson, the former CEO of Progress Energy, accepted a staff recommendation of a less expensive repair of the Crystal River nuclear plant. The buck stopped with him.Associated Press
Published February 5 2013
Updated February 11 2014

The only nuclear power plant ever to serve the Tampa Bay area will shut down permanently in the wake of a bungled repair now deemed too risky and costly to fix.

It's a sad, embarrassing end to the Crystal River 3 nuclear plant started up in March 1977 by what was then Florida Power Corp. The plant stopped generating electricity in September 2009 under subsequent owner Progress Energy and was declared DOA on Tuesday by new owner Duke Energy.

Who's to blame?

You could say Florida Power built a clumsy first-generation plant that just wasn't made to last.

You could say Progress Energy doomed the plant after its flawed decision to skip outside experts in favor of a cheaper internal repair job.

You could say the Florida Legislature, long beholden to power companies and their deep political pockets, played an insidious part by serving as industry lapdogs for decades.

You could say the Florida Public Service Commission, gelded by legislators who control it, attracted only puppets to serve on a regulatory board infamous for lip-synching the wishes of electric utilities. Last year, the PSC endorsed a settlement agreement that let Progress Energy refund $288 million to customers in exchange for ending a public investigation of how the utility broke the nuclear plant.

Now we'll never know for sure what happened at CR3.

You could say Duke Energy played a role in buying Progress Energy, including its Florida business. Duke portrayed the deal as a merger of near equals but later declared it had bought a "fixer-upper."

Yes, they all deserve blame. But one person stands out as most responsible for the premature demise of the Crystal River 3 nuclear power plant.

Bill Johnson.

He was the CEO of Progress Energy, headquartered in Raleigh, N.C., when Progress Energy Florida decided to pursue a "we-can-do-it-cheaper" repair of its sole nuclear power plant in the Sunshine State.

Johnson is the boss who accepted a staff recommendation that cutting a hole in Crystal River's containment vessel — to replace steam generators — would be less complicated and less expensive than using an existing hatch.

Wrong. As CEO, the buck stopped with Johnson.

That, Duke insists, is why it fired Johnson on the same day he became CEO of the newly merged company.

Justice served? Hardly.

Johnson's one-day tenure could bring him up to a $44.7 million post-exit payday. It includes $10.3 million in severance, bonus and benefits, states an SEC filing, as long as he keeps quiet and agrees not to criticize his former employer.

In November, Johnson was named CEO of the Tennessee Valley Authority, the nation's largest government utility. He will receive as much as $4 million a year in pay and bonus.

Big paychecks for doing a lousy job hardly sends the right message to the public.

But if Johnson is not to blame, who is?

Maybe it's us, for letting our system of utility oversight fail so miserably.

Now we will all pay for it.

Robert Trigaux can be reached at trigaux@tampabay.com.