When Florida Power & Light proposed building new reactors at Turkey Point nearly a decade ago, it joined a nuclear revival that included proposed expansions at 17 other power plants around the country aimed at replacing the nation’s aging atomic fleet.
Today, that rebirth looks more like a funeral.
Twelve of those applications have been withdrawn, suspended or remain under review. The massive 1,100-megawatt reactor design that FPL picked for Turkey Point appears in trouble after the builder, Westinghouse, filed for bankruptcy in March, dragged under by the swelling construction costs of similar reactors at Georgia and South Carolina plants. Energy experts say the bankruptcy filing — along with emerging technology that focuses on smaller, cheaper reactors — points toward an industry shake-up. Innovations in wind and solar have also diminished nuclear’s once firm grasp on the energy sector, while cheap natural gas continues to make it more attractive to utilities than costly reactors.
Criticism over nuclear expansion at Turkey Point also mounted after cooling canals connected to two existing units produced a growing plume of underground saltwater that threatened drinking water supplies.
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FPL hit the pause button on the reactors last year for at least four years. But despite the industry retrenchment, the utility has consistently maintained that it wants nuclear to remain a big part of its energy portfolio.
And this month, FPL came closer to clearing what might be the last hurdle in obtaining its federal license for expansion during a two-day hearing when it defended attacks from environmentalists and neighboring cities over plans to dispose of millions of gallons of wastewater used in cooling the new reactors in wells deep underground. A decision on the wastewater plan from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission could come in the next two months, clearing the way for FPL to finally secure that critical license. But what might get built and when remain uncertain.
The conundrum facing everyone is there’s a lot of spent costs and spent time.
Richard Nephew, senior research scholar for Columbia University’s Center on Global Energy Policy
“The conundrum facing everyone is there’s a lot of spent costs and spent time,” said Richard Nephew, a senior research scholar for Columbia University’s Center on Global Energy Policy. “They’ve done a lot of work, but they’ve also done a lot of work on one concept.”
FPL says it’s keeping a careful watch on progress at the Georgia and South Carolina plants to determine the final make-up at Turkey Point and could find a company other than Westinghouse to build the AP-1000 model reactors. One thing is certain: The prospect of new reactors up and running remains years, perhaps a decade or more, away. FPL, when it first pitched the expansion plan to the Florida Public Service Commission in 2007, had projected the first of two new reactors to be bolstering South Florida’s power grid as early as next year.
“What we’ve said from day one is having this option is important to our customers because of the significant amount of electricity it provides,” FPL spokesman Peter Robbins said. “If you’re going to generate electricity and you can do it without greenhouse gases in your portfolio, it’s definitely a plus.”
So far, the utility has collected $280 million from its customers to offset the costs of obtaining the NRC license for the two reactors, which are expected to cost $20 billion. Such long delays between licensing and construction are not unheard of in the nuclear industry. The Tennessee Valley Authority obtained a license for two reactors in the 1970s, finished one in 1996 but mothballed the second unit when demand dropped, said Dave Lochbaum, director of the Union of Concerned Scientists’ Nuclear Safety Project. The second unit wasn’t completed until last year.
“So I would have bet against that and lost,” Lochbaum said.
$280 millionThe amount FPL has charged customers so far to obtain a license for two new nuclear reactors
In a document filed with the state earlier this month announcing plans to refund $7.3 million it overcharged customers for the units, FPL said it fully expects to receive approvals for the new reactors in late 2017 or early 2018, even as it recognizes “uncertainty inherent in the path forward to construction.” FPL plans to limit efforts over “the next several years” to maintaining the license and “continuing to monitor the first wave new nuclear construction projects,” the document said.
FPL first applied to the NRC to build the AP-1000 reactors in June 2009, four years after the NRC certified the compact design for U.S. use and cleared the way for what was supposed to be a speedier approval taking just three years. The request came a year after Duke Energy made the same application for two new reactors in Levy County in Florida’s Big Bend. The NRC also approved construction of twin reactors at the Georgia and South Carolina plants in 2009 and 2012.
But problems, from concerns about safety to design changes triggered by the 2011 Fukushima earthquake, overwhelmed construction with design changes and climbing costs. The Georgia and South Carolina plants are years behind schedule and billions over budget. License applications for units in Pennsylvania, Alabama, Missouri, Maryland, Mississippi, on Lake Ontario in New York, Louisiana and Texas were all withdrawn.
A year ago, FPL announced it was postponing construction on the units for at least four years. The utility has also repeatedly fended off critics who question the validity of taking money from customers for work that could be decades away. In 2013, Duke canceled its construction contract for the Levy plant after collecting $1.5 billion from customers. Duke is still pursing a license, but is now charging the costs to company shareholders.
With the Westinghouse bankruptcy, critics say the future of the reactors, Units 6 and 7, is even more uncertain.
It’s becoming increasingly farfetched but it’s not been officially declared dead yet and they keep trying to charge us through the [Florida Public Service Commission].
South Miami Mayor Phil Stoddard
“It’s becoming increasingly farfetched but it’s not been officially declared dead yet and they keep trying to charge us through the [Florida Public Service Commission],” said South Miami Mayor Phil Stoddard, a frequent critic. “What they’re doing is using six and seven as a Trojan horse to get other infrastructure built.”
Stoddard also believes mounting problems with the location — between wetlands and protected national park waters — and tricky relationship with South Florida’s fragile water supply raise questions. FPL is in the midst of a massive cleanup of canals used to cool two older reactors after repeatedly denying over the years that hyper salty water leaked into the aquifer, threatening drinking water supplies. The two new reactors would use cooling towers, rather than canals, drawing treated wastewater from a nearby Miami-Dade County sewage treatment plant. But once used, millions of gallons of used water would need to be disposed of somewhere.
The utility wants to dump the water in injection wells deep underground in the boulder zone. Stoddard, along with the city of Miami, Village of Pinecrest and environmentalists, worry that the wastewater contains dangerous chemicals that could potentially migrate upwards through fractures in the rock that divides salty water deep underground from the region’s shallow freshwater aquifer.
In the mid-1990s, waste injected into wells a half mile deep at the sewer plant turned up in monitoring wells. The state sued the county over the pollution, ending in a $500 million settlement and a promise to better treat the water.
But FPL says the treated wastewater meets environmental regulations so, even if it leaked, the water is not hazardous.
There’s also the cost of building the new reactors: an estimated $20 billion. Last month, the nuclear industry trade group said regulators were considering prolonging license extensions on existing plants by as much as 80 years to help out aging plants, Lochbaum said. Two — the Surry nuclear plant in Virginia and Peach Bottom plant in Pennsylvania — have already applied for second renewals and hinted they would pursue the longer extension, he said. Presumably, FPL would consider such extensions for the two existing units, which were uprated to produce more power in 2012 at a cost of $2 billion, Robbins said. License renewals were granted in 2002 and end in 2032 and 2033, when the units will be close to 60 years old.
The decision about future relicensing, that’s something we’ll address when the time comes....It’s a ways down the road, but it could go beyond 40 years.
FPL spokesman Peter Robbins
“While the plants originally came online decades ago, the equipment is modern and in a lot of cases new,” Robbins said. “So the decision about future re-licensing, that’s something we’ll address when the time comes. … It’s a ways down the road, but it could go beyond 40 years.”
In the meantime, the future of the nuclear industry will likely shift to smaller, cheaper reactors that are easier and faster to build, Nephew said. That will also mean redefining the way licenses for the massive units now being constructed are issued.
“The industry as it stands now is probably in for a shake-up,” he said. “The Westinghouse financial problem is probably that shake-up and we’ll see what emerges from it.”
With Westinghouse out of the picture, FPL can probably still find someone else to build reactors of the same design, Nephew said. One advantage to sticking with the current design: It would keep the utility from having to undergo a new federal review.
“My assumption is yes, you can find someone to build them, but that list is pretty damn short. And the number of contractors you need to manufacture the parts is [equally problematic]. There isn’t the equivalent of a Home Depot to build this stuff,” he said.
But power demand is not going down, he said. With so much money already invested in licensing the Westinghouse reactor, he’s betting South Florida will one day get its reactors.
“The need for those reactors was not made up,” he said. “So something’s going to be built to take that load. And it’s probably going to be a reactor and it’s probably going to be the AP1000.”
Follow Jenny Staletovich on Twitter @jenstaletovich