The future of the nuclear energy industry in Florida appears to be dimming.
Duke Energy Corp. on Thursday announced it had indefinitely postponed plans to build two new reactors in sparsely populated Levy County on the Gulf Coast, citing federal licensing delays and economic concerns. Those are topped by spiraling construction costs and uncertainty over whether Florida regulators and lawmakers will continue supporting controversial cost-recovery policies allowing utilities to bill customers in advance for plants with multibillion-dollar price tags.
The decision by the nations largest utility is the latest sign of cooling enthusiasm for nuclear power nationwide. It promises to increase scrutiny of Florida Power & Lights plan to add two more reactors to its Turkey Point nuclear power plant on south Biscayne Bay.
Erik Hofmeyer, an FPL spokesman, said the utility constantly reviews changes in energy markets but remains committed to obtaining a license from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission for two next-generation reactors he said would save customers $78 billion in fuel costs over decades of operation.
Thats extremely important, and we continue to pursue both state and federal approval, he said.
While Duke left the window cracked open for a future reactor, environmentalists and other critics still said the utilitys move driven by high reactor costs and plunging prices for natural gas and alternative energy options like solar power bolstered their arguments that FPL should abandon its own expansion plans.
Duke really has looked at the bottom line and concluded they werent going to make their money back, at least any time soon, said South Miami Mayor Philip Stoddard, who is among a number of political leaders from Kendall to Coral Gables fighting FPLs expansion and an associated high voltage power line corridor through their communities.
What theyre trying to pull off at Turkey Point is a lot harder and more expensive, he said.
Stoddard scoffed at FPLs cost projections of $12 billion to $18 billion. Dukes initial estimates of $10 million for two similar reactors at the Levy County site had most recently topped $24 billion. Stoddard said Turkey Point would also require extensive additional work, including a pipeline and processing plant for treated sewage that would be used to cool reactors and a network of wells that would serve as a backup supply.
George Cavros, Florida energy policy attorney for the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy, said economic drivers had changed significantly since FPL and Duke filed applications to build the new plants in 2008 as part of a wave of two dozen proposed reactors across the country.
Theirs were the first new nuclear plants proposed since the 1970s, but what seemed an industry rebound a few years ago has lost steam. Only five new reactors are actually under construction at three sites in Georgia, South Carolina and Tennessee all states with similar cost-recovery policies that help utilities finance projects.
In the meantime, Cavros said, demand for electricity has dropped as a result of the sputtering economy. Natural gas has become plentiful and cheap thanks in large part to the environmentally questionable practice of hydraulic fracturing, better known as fracking. Japans Fukushima disaster in 2011 also renewed public questions and weakened political support.