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Final Progress nuclear reactor tab could top $17-billion

If you think $17-billion is a whopper of a price for a pair of new nuclear reactors and related construction in Levy County, be warned.

"They may be more expensive," Progress Energy informed state regulators in documents filed Tuesday.

"I'm afraid we're on the hook for a huge financial disaster here," said Bill Newton, executive director of the Florida Consumer Action Network. "It's scary. It really is frightening."

In its filing Tuesday with state regulators, Progress Energy repeatedly warned that its latest estimate for its planned nuclear facility is "nonbinding" and "subject to change over time." Under a 2-year-old Florida law, customers will start paying for the plant years before it goes into service.

As the Times reported Tuesday, the price tag for the nuke plant could start showing up in Progress' monthly bills starting next year, with residential customers facing an average increase of about $9 a month.

Despite the rising costs, support for new nuclear in Florida remains strong.

Progress Energy's top brass met with Gov. Charlie Crist on Monday afternoon. Undeterred by the ballooning price tag, Crist reaffirmed his support, saying fuel diversity and energy security make nuclear critical to the state's future.

Progress Energy offered its revised estimate Tuesday: $14-billion for two new nuclear reactors in Levy County, a few miles north of its Crystal River power station. The utility said its 200-mile, 10-county transmission project will cost $3-billion more. The total cost triples estimates the utility offered little more than a year ago.

On top of the new price tag, Progress Energy hammered home the warnings made by many opponents: Reactors haven't been built in decades. Projects could face costly delays in permitting and licensing. Lawsuits could slow the process.

The Florida Public Service Commission will review Progress Energy's costs every year, and provide checks and balances on spending, said Buddy Eller, Progress Energy spokesman. Nuclear will also save customers $1-billion a year on fuel costs, the utility estimated.

"The things we have no control over" include price hikes for steel, copper and concrete, Eller said.

In the past five years, the price of copper has gone up more than 300 percent, cement has risen more than 30 percent, and iron and steel have risen more than 70 percent. The nuclear industry has already predicted shortfalls in the nuclear work force.

"Not all of these things are likely to go the way the company would like," predicted David Lochbaum, director of a nuclear safety project for the Union of Concerned Scientists. "That's not a reflection on the company."

Times researcher Will Gorham contributed to this report. Asjylyn Loder can be reached at aloder@sptimes.com or (813) 225-3117.

Final Progress nuclear reactor tab could top $17-billion 03/12/08 [Last modified: Wednesday, March 12, 2008 12:22am]
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