TALLAHASSEE — The governor and Cabinet on Tuesday approved Progress Energy's controversial proposal to build a nuclear plant in Levy County, the first such plant approved in Florida in 33 years.
The vote by Gov. Charlie Crist, Attorney General Bill McCollum and Chief Financial Officer Alex Sink comes as Progress Energy seeks to raise its base rates by 30 percent to pay for the plant, which would not be up and running until at least 2018.
"I want to commend Progress for this initiative," McCollum said. "It's a very, very important project. I am impressed with the passion of the opponents here today, but I want to assure them that I have spent a long time studying this issue. … We are going to have a tremendous demand for energy in the coming years. We're going to have to increase our capacity for electricity and power, and nuclear is a part of that."
Crist, who has pushed for a stronger renewable and clean energy plan for Florida, lauded the clean energy the plant will produce. He's also enthusiastic about jobs to be created with the plant's construction and operation — as many as 5,000 short- and long-term, by Progress' estimate.
"We need to diversify our energy resources," Crist said. "I encourage solar and wind and wave, and nuclear, development. The more diversified we are, the more opportunity we have to never suffer when one is less available than the other."
Crist noted Florida has moved to No. 2 for solar energy production in the country.
Progress officials hailed the plant as a major step toward that diversified energy future, and they insist the plant will save customers money over time.
"This will save customers approximately $1 billion a year by lowering fuel costs," said Jeff Lyash, executive vice president for Progress. "This is an important part of Florida's energy future."
But critics, several of whom showed up at the Capitol to protest the vote and complain about "corporate greed," question the safety of the plant and its impact on wetlands on and surrounding the 5,000-acre site north of the town of Inglis.
"I'm concerned about the time it is going to take to build this plant. I am concerned about the danger and about the legacy we are leaving to our children," said state Rep. Michelle Rehwinkle-Vasilinda. "We are leaving a legacy of waste. It is not truly clean. There is waste, and it has to be permanently disposed. We have not figured out how to do that, and I am concerned."
Progress had hoped to start producing power from the plant in 2016, but on May 1, the utility announced that construction had been delayed 20 months because the federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission would not allow it to begin building anything before all of its site and safety reviews were complete.
The plant won't come cheap.
Progress Energy, which has about 129,500 customers in Pasco County and more than 10,000 in Hernando, wants to raise base rates by more than 30 percent, which would generate about $500 million for construction.
Although the plant won't start producing power until March 2018 at the earliest, customers are already paying for its construction. In January, customers saw a monthly increase of $12.11 per 1,000 kilowatt hours to pay for nuclear projects, sparking such an uproar that the utility then lowered its rates, reducing the monthly nuclear charge to $4.31 per 1,000 kilowatt hours.
Critics have complained about the site the company picked. In many places, the water table is above ground for half the year or longer, according to documents the company filed with the NRC. Most of the site is in the 100-year floodplain, so after heavy rain it likely will remain inundated for some time.
"Any hurricane event would inundate the vicinity of the plant with storm surge," the Withlacoochee Regional Planning Council noted in a report. "On-site the plant and associated facilities may be especially vulnerable to flood hazard."
The utility's plans call for wiping out about 765 acres of wetlands, according to a public notice posted in May by the agency that issues federal wetland permits, the Army Corps of Engineers. Mike Sole, head of the Florida Department of Environmental Protection, called the 765 acres "the worst-case scenario" and said his department "will work diligently to minimize this impact."
Even with the Cabinet vote, Progress has many hurdles, Sole stressed. The federal government has oversight of the proposed project, particularly over nuclear safety matters. In July, as public hearings were held around the state about the proposal, federal regulators with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission ruled that environmental groups could challenge the proposal.
One issue: The utility has yet to figure out where it will send the new plant's radioactive waste, and thus may have to store it on site longer than expected.
The NRC also found that the utility may have underestimated the impact of building the plant in a floodplain. That will require filling in and paving over hundreds of acres of wetlands, which may hurt both the underground aquifer and the Withlacoochee River, not to mention the wildlife species that depend on them, the NRC found.
And the NRC said the utility may not have adequately addressed the impact of "salt drift" into the remaining wetlands on the site. The plant will pump 120 million gallons of saltwater a day from the Cross Florida Barge Canal, evaporate a third of it for cooling, and pump the warm, salty remainder into waters near the Big Bend Aquatic Seagrasses Preserve. The question the plant's critics raised is what happens to the vapor from the cooling towers.
Shannon Colavecchio can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (850) 224-7263.