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Robert Trigaux

Nuclear Taj Mahal? NRC targets Progress Energy Levy nuclear plant for tougher safety review





Progress Energy seeks to build a 2-reactor nuclear power plant in Levy County using the Westinghouse AP1000 design. But at what price tag?

Wake up and good morning. Federal regulators have thrown another wrench into Progress Energy's already beleaguered effort in Florida to build a nuclear power plant in Levy County. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission late last week said while it has now approved plans for two southern utilities -- Southern Co. in Georgia and now Scana Corp. in South Carolina -- to move forward to build new nuclear power plants, the NRC's review of Progress's review to construct identical units may be slowed by the federal agency's analysis of U.S. plant safety following the meltdowns in Japan last year of Tokyo Electric Power's Fukushima Dai-Ichi plant. The NRC decision was  reported by Bloomberg News in this story.

jaczko.gregory.nrcchairmanap.jpg"This may delay issuance of the final safety review" and mean greater scrutiny for Progress's plan to build two reactors in Levy County, NRC chairman Gregory Jaczko (AP photo, right) said last week.

Specifically, the NRC drew a dividing line between the Southern Co. and Scana projects -- which will not be subject to full safety reviews based on the Japan disaster -- and Progress Energy's Levy project, which will face that higher scrutiny.

It's another blow to Progress Energy's waning Levy project, already estimated to cost $22.5 billion to come online by 2021. But consulting firm Synapse Energy Economics, in a specific study of the Levy plant, has reported that cost figure could rise dramatically -- to $28 billion or more -- the longer Progress Energy delays (or is forced to delay) plant construction.

Such enormous sums -- so excessive given the amount of electricity that would be produced by the Levy plant -- would be sparking a greater public outcry and state legislative hearings in a state that has not become so captive to the power industry.

To be clear, Progress Energy has not yet even specified whether it will build the Levy plant, though that has not stopped the North Carolina-based power company from charging its Florida customers hundreds of millions of dollars in advance expenses related to the plant. The best guess scenario is that Progress Energy -- spurred on by the bizarre 2006 Florida law that lets it charge customers in advance without need to refund those sums -- wants at the very least to obtain a federal license from the NRC for the Levy plant whether or not it decides to build it at the moment.

But last week's NRC decision to slow the Levy decision and add more safety scrutiny is likely to raise the cost of the project beyond $22.5 billion and add another notch against Progress Energy's pursuit of new nuclear in Florida. Let's not forget that the same company broke its one and only nuclear power plant in this state -- Crystal River 3 in Citrus County -- in a do-it-yourself repair fix that has resulted in that plant remaining shut down since the fall of 2009.  As with the unborn Levy plants, the future of Crystal River also remains in doubt. It is possible the company will decide the aging nuclear plant is too expensive to repair and simply shut it down for good. But that decision has yet to be made.

The Tampa Bay Times newspaper (which I work for) has been aggressively covering the saga of Progress Energy's nuclear ambitions and fumblings in Florida. Last week, the newspaper published this editorial that specifically says enough is enough and calls for the company to pull the plug on the too-expensive Levy project. "If Progress Energy refuses to accept that (market) conditions have changed and continues to pursue this pipe dream, the cost should be borne by its shareholders and not the customers," the editorial states.

Progress Energy remains largely mum on this nuclear escapade, which suggests it really does not have a good argument to justify what is quickly becoming the Taj Mahal of nuclear power plants.

-- Robert Trigaux, Business Columnist, Tampa Bay Times



[Last modified: Monday, April 2, 2012 7:36am]


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