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At Progress Energy's final annual meeting, it's all in for nuclear power

Shareholders of Progress Energy gather Wednesday morning in the company's home town of Raleigh, N.C., for the last annual meeting before the merger later this year into larger Duke Energy.

Combined, the companies become the country's largest electricity provider and a top advocate of nuclear power — despite soaring costs to build nuke plants. The merger also comes just as the world rethinks the virtues of nuclear energy after Japan's nuclear disaster, the biggest since the 1986 Chernobyl meltdown.

For Tampa Bay area ratepayers, it's the latest tale of the bigger devouring the big. In 2000, Progress Energy gobbled up St. Petersburg's Florida Power, arguing utilities must get larger to compete. We hear a similar message in Duke's $13 billion-plus purchase of Progress Energy. Want nuclear power? Better get deeper pockets.

"If we look at the capital expenditures in front of us and if we want to be a player in new nuclear construction, which we think is important, we're just not big enough to do that efficiently," Progress Energy CEO Bill Johnson told the Associated Press.

On their own, Progress Energy and Duke each have long rallied behind nuclear power. In the climate change debate, they argue nuclear power can cut air and water pollution produced by coal, oil and even natural gas — today's fuel of choice to generate electricity. They also say nuclear is key to achieving a much tougher goal: A big reduction in our dependence on foreign oil.

That, at least is the grand vision of the two companies, both based in North Carolina. The day-to-day reality is sometimes different.

A merged Duke-Progress Energy will lobby aggressively for such pro-nuclear aid as cheaper government loans and energy incentives.

It will seek the power to charge more consumers up front for the expense of building nuclear plants.

Florida lawmakers already allow utilities with nuclear ambitions to charge customers in advance.

Leery of Japan's predicament, North Carolina legislators recently rebuffed Duke and Progress Energy for seeking similar powers in their home state.

"Nuclear energy remains vital to the world's electricity needs," CEO James E. Rogers said last week at Duke's annual shareholders meeting. He promised safety modifications identified from Japan's crisis will be made.

Duke and Progress Energy want to build nuclear plants in North Carolina, South Carolina and in Florida's Levy County, north of the Tampa Bay area.

Duke already operates seven nuclear reactors. Progress Energy runs five, including one Florida unit at Crystal River in Citrus County. That one has been off-line and under repair since September 2009. (Progress Energy Florida, the St. Petersburg subsidiary, supplies the bulk of electricity to west central Florida.)

At Duke's annual meeting in its headquarters town of Charlotte, N.C., protesters ranged from environmental groups that opposed coal and nuclear power plants to tea party activists who complained that Rogers helped bring the 2012 Democratic National Convention to town.

Nuclear or not, one thing is clear: Whatever path Progress Energy takes, electric rates in the long term are likely to keep rising.

In 2002, Progress Energy Florida sold 1,000 kilowatt hours of electricity for about $82. Now it's about $119. You get the general drift.

Contact Robert Trigaux at trigaux@sptimes.com.

At Progress Energy's final annual meeting, it's all in for nuclear power 05/09/11 [Last modified: Monday, May 9, 2011 8:36pm]
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