Floridians stuck with the bill for unused nuclear power plants



With the help of the Florida Legislature, two energy companies have been able to collect more than $1 billion from utility customers for the construction of nuclear power plants with no guarantee they would ever be built.

One of those companies, Progress Energy, announced last week that it would shut down its Crystal River nuclear plant, which hasn’t generated electricity since 2009. Rather than make repairs to a damaged containment building, the company will begin the 40- to 60-year process of dismantling the plant.

Progress Energy has spent at least $457 million to purchase electricity elsewhere to offset the lost production at Crystal River, which began operating in 1977. However, a consultant’s report last year put repairs between $1.5 billion and $3.43 billion.

Now Progress Energy may consider building a natural-gas power plant to help replace the lost generation of electricity from the nuclear facility. It could begin operation as early as 2018.

No nuclear plant has been built in the United States in 30 years. So why have customers been paying for nuclear-power plants that may not go into operation? In 2006, state lawmakers passed the Nuclear Cost Recovery Clause. It was a response to Florida’s booming economy and a potential future demand for electricity. With no way to pay for it, they saddled customers with the cost.

Since that time, the two largest investor-owned utilities, Florida Power & Light and Progress Energy Florida, have collected $1.4 billion with the Public Service Commission’s blessing. Just a few months ago, the commission approved the recovery of another $151 million in nuclear project costs for FPL and $143 million for Progress Energy.

But not everyone supports allowing big power companies to profit off their customers. State Rep. Michelle Rehwinkel Vasilinda, D-Tallahassee, and state Rep. Mike Fasano, R-New Port Richey, have tried to repeal the advance fee law, saying it’s an unfair “tax.” They have yet to receive a hearing. The average cost per customer ranges from $1.69 to $4.74 each month.

Though consumers don’t have the Public Service Commission on their side, the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy has gone to bat for the public. It challenged the constitutionality of the law and argued before the Florida Supreme Court late last year. The court has yet to rule.

At a time when people are struggling with unemployment and underemployment, it is outrageous the Florida Legislature hasn’t sought to repeal this law. Private industry should never be funded on the backs of our families.

The reasons for repeal are strong. The economic downturn has reduced power demand, natural-gas prices have fallen and safety concerns have risen after Japan’s nuclear-plant meltdown. House Speaker Will Weatherford now admits it may not have been a good idea.

While it may not have been obvious to the Florida Legislature in 2006, it should be obvious in 2013. Repeal the Nuclear Cost Recovery Clause, and ask the power companies to refund their customers the unused money.

A former reporter for the St. Petersburg Times and Orlando Sentinel, Susan Clary is a freelance writer living in Winter Park.

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