Public outrage, following a series of stories in the Tampa Bay Times outlining the financial realities, began to weaken the law’s once unshakable support in the Legislature. Nuclear supporters like Latvala, who will be joined by Sens. John Legg, R-Lutz, Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg, and Wilton Simpson, R-New Port Richey, at the news conference Thursday , began to hear from voters.
“It’s an issue of concern to my constituents on an increasing basis,” Latvala said.
Duke Energy spokesman Sterling Ivey said the utility is “committed to a reasonable discussion” about the law.
“When specific legislation is introduced we will have the opportunity to determine the impact on our business and customers,” he said.
But what’s the perfect fix?
Repealing the law, a proposal championed by a small group of legislators, would stanch customers’ financial liabilities. It would also doom any new nuclear projects.
“There’s no question that repealing the law would effectively kill all investment in new nuclear power for Florida,” said Mark Bubriski, spokesman for Florida Power & Light, which has two new nuclear reactors in the planning stages.
Legislators could force utilities to refund the money to customers if a project isn’t built. But that, essentially, is the same as shifting all the risk back to the utilities. They have said they won’t build nuclear plants under that condition.
How about setting construction deadlines? The nuclear industry has an infamous history of delay, cost overruns and failures. Given that, utilities are unlikely to accept any hard deadlines that would require paying customers back or that could cutoff the flow of money in the middle of a project. It would be too much of a financial risk. And if the deadlines were too wishy washy, they would not do much to protect customers. Besides, it isn’t easy for utilities to control the timing of federal regulatory decisions on new reactors.
Lawmakers could attempt to cap the amount customers would have to pay, exactly what Bradford said he recommended to Florida regulators years ago. Progress’ response at the time: Not if you want a nuclear plant built.
The legislators could remove utilities’ ability to profit on the advance fee. That fix might make customers feel better, but it would be largely symbolic. In the case of the Levy project, for instance, Progress Energy Florida would have to forgo its $150 million cut. That would still leave customers on the hook for more than $1.3 billion.
House Speaker Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, and Senate President Don Gaetz agree that the law needs review.
“I’m going to make sure it gets a full debate, gets considered,” Gaetz told the Tampa Bay Times recently. “Absolutely.”
The debate could be long one.
Some utilities and legislators remain fixated on nuclear projects, concerned that Florida is becoming overly dependent on natural gas. The state now gets more than 60 percent of its electricity from natural gas, more than double than just a decade ago.
Even so, Bradford doesn’t see much hope for new nuclear projects in Florida. Even a successful fix to the advance fee law would not change the reality that new nuclear plant projects have huge upfront costs that often lead them to get canceled.
“You can’t make the cost of these things go away.” Bradford said.
His solution? “Build something else.”
Ivan Penn can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 892-2332.