Given a string of setbacks regarding FPL’s plans to expand the nuclear energy plant at Turkey Point, the recent disclosure that it plans to delay construction for up to four years is a victory for common sense and for critics who worry about the project’s impact on safety and the environment.
What doesn’t make sense is the utility’s desire to charge consumers for costs related to the project, particularly when the delay raises the prospect that it may not go forward at all.
FPL says the recovery costs will decrease during the delay, but remain necessary as part of the licensing procedure and the need to learn from other nuclear energy projects around the country that have also experienced unforeseen delays.
The company wants to charge customers $22 million in 2017 — on top of $281 million it has already recovered for planning and licensing costs — even though the utility said in an April 27 filing with the state’s Public Service Commission that it wants to maintain its “current state” without going forward on the construction phase until 2020.
On top of that, the utility also wants the PSC to waive the requirement that it file a feasibility report that essentially states that the project it applied for nearly a decade ago is still viable.
That drew a volley of challenges from consumers groups, the Office of Public Counsel (which represents the public in rate cases) and others. A brief filed by the city of Miami said feasibility studies are required to assure the public that such projects are prudent. “If a project is no longer feasible or practical, then the costs incurred are not prudent,” wrote city of Miami attorney Victoria Mendez.
FPL’s decision followed several developments that cast doubt on the wisdom of the proposed expansion. Among them:
▪ Reports dating back to 2014 that water in the canals designed to cool reactors were running too high, requiring waivers from nuclear regulators to operate the canals at higher-than-normal temperatures. If the existing nuclear plant is causing problems, wouldn’t an expansion make matters worse?
▪ In February, A Tallahassee judge ordered state environmental regulators and FPL to clean up the utility’s cooling canals at Turkey Point after blaming the system for polluting South Florida’s groundwater.
▪ In March, this newspaper reported that a study released by Miami-Dade County Mayor Carlos Gimenez found that a tracer element of nuclear power plant spillages had been detected in Biscayne Bay at levels up to 215 times higher than normal in ocean water.
▪ On April 20, an appeals court reversed the state’s certification of the new units at Turkey Point because the state failed to consider Miami’s development plan and damage to the Everglades when it allowed FPL to string 88 miles of line atop high towers.
▪ A day later, the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission Atomic Safety Licensing Board denied FPL’s motion seeking an expedited ruling on injection wells, though it has not ruled on the feasibility of the wells. The wells are a critical part of FPL’s plan for cleaning up the canals.
FPL officials also told the Editorial Board that, whatever the outcome, the utility’s diversification and updating of power-generation plants and the electrical grid guarantee that it will be able to meet all its commitments to its customers in the coming years.
That’s reassuring, but the PSC, which has been too cozy with those it regulates, should suspend charges to consumers until FPL can also reassure the public that the expansion will really take place. If prudent planning warrants a pause in the plant’s expansion, it also warrants a pause in recovery costs.