Make us your home page

No rush on nuke plant review

The nation's new utility titan, Duke Energy, largely blamed the broken Crystal River nuclear plant for troubles in its recent mega merger with Progress Energy.

That was the utility's defense against a barrage of questions during hearings last week in North Carolina. But while regulators in that state have the power to rescind the merger or fine the new combined company, they can't address the Crystal River problems head on. The plant is not in their jurisdiction.

That oversight falls to Florida's Legislature and Public Service Commission. But neither body appears to be in much of a hurry.

They haven't called for hearings or opened independent investigations or demanded many documents, even though the North Carolina hearings confirmed that the Crystal River plant in Citrus County is at the center of the combined utility's problems.

And they have yet to demand more specifics about why Duke Energy officials last week said a "serious situation" arose at Crystal River as recently as mid May, a new revelation Duke officials were not asked to elaborate upon during the North Carolina hearings.

Every delay in resolving Crystal River's nuclear plant troubles adds more costs to customers — as much as $300 million a year just to make up for the lost electricity.

Florida legislative and regulatory leaders appear to be pointing fingers at each other.

"The PSC is monitoring the … merger, and we must let the ongoing investigation proceed," House Speaker Designate Will Weatherford, said in an email through his spokesman.

PSC Chairman Ronald Brisé said to a large degree, the commission's hands are tied.

"Our decisions are bound by the laws set forth by the Florida Legislature," he wrote in a letter responding to questions about what his agency plans to do with the information revealed at the North Carolina hearings. "Ultimately, it is our mission to fulfill the state's interest in encouraging energy diversification while protecting Florida consumers and, in this instance, PEF customers."

The PSC has a previously scheduled "status update" on Crystal River set for Aug. 13. Prior to the status update, the PSC will meet with management of the combined Progress Energy and Duke Energy to discuss agreements the state entered regarding the power plant, according to a July 18 letter from Brisé about the merger.

"Florida Commissioners want to confirm that Duke's vision coincides with the Florida PSC's work on behalf of Progress Energy Florida's (PEF) customers," Brisé wrote.

Progress Energy CEO Bill Johnson had been slated to run the combined company ever since the merger was announced in January 2011. But just hours after the merger was completed earlier this month, Duke's board ousted him in large part because of the way he was handling the broken Crystal River plant and Progress' nuclear fleet in general, according to testimony at the North Carolina hearings. Duke officials complained about a "lack of transparency" regarding Crystal River and the status of negotiations with the insurance company that holds the policy on the power plant.

North Carolina regulators have sweeping powers. They could even reinstall Johnson as CEO, though that appears unlikely.

The Florida PSC lacks that kind of power. For example, it has no authority over the merger — even though 1.6 million of the utility's customers live in Florida.

Weatherford, the Florida legislator, asked for patience as the details about the merger get sorted out.

"First, and most importantly, the residents of our community need to know that there are no health or safety threats to the area concerning the Progress power plant," Weatherford said. "At this time, there are rumors, innuendo, and conjecture about the merger. It is critical that we separate fact from fiction before considering legislative action."

Arnie Gundersen, a nuclear engineer with Fairewinds Associates and a consultant before utilities commissions, said PSC commissioners and legislators have the power to call hearings and challenge utility executives on their decisions, but they don't often push very hard if at all.

By shifting responsibility to the Florida PSC, legislators can effectively ignore the issues and mitigate the fallout from voters and the utilities, Gundersen said.

"My experience is the PSC in Florida is so co-opted that they aren't going to do anything, either," he said.

The Crystal River reactor went offline in September 2009 for a maintenance and upgrade project that included replacing old steam generators. During the project, the reactor's 42-inch thick concrete containment building cracked. Progress' attempt to repair the crack led to two more cracks. Repairs and related costs are now expected to reach as much as $3 billion.

"Crystal River has been on life support for two years," Gundersen said. "It's time for someone to declare it brain dead and pull the plug."

Ivan Penn can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 892-332.

No rush on nuke plant review 07/23/12 [Last modified: Tuesday, July 24, 2012 3:16pm]
Photo reprints | Article reprints

© 2017 Tampa Bay Times


Join the discussion: Click to view comments, add yours

  1. Massachusetts firm buys Tampa's Element apartment tower

    Real Estate

    TAMPA — Downtown Tampa's Element apartment tower sold this week to a Massachusetts-based real estate investment company that plans to upgrade the skyscraper's amenities and operate it long-term as a rental community.

    The Element apartment high-rise at 808 N Franklin St. in downtown Tampa has been sold to a Northland Investment Corp., a Massachusetts-based real estate investment company. JIM DAMASKE  |  Times
  2. New York town approves Legoland proposal


    GOSHEN, N.Y. — New York is one step closer to a Lego dreamland. Goshen, a small town about fifty miles northwest of the Big Apple, has approved the site plan for a $500 million Legoland amusement park.

    A small New York town, Goshen approved the site plan for a $500 million Legoland amusement park. Legoland Florida is in Winter Haven. [Times file  photo]
  3. Jordan Park to get $20 million makeover and new senior housing

    Real Estate


    Times Staff Writer

    ST. PETERSBURG —The St. Petersburg Housing Authority, which bought back the troubled Jordan Park public housing complex this year, plans to spend about $20 million to improve the 237-unit property and construct a new three-story building for …

    Jordan Park, the historic public housing complex, is back in the hands of the St. Petersburg Housing Authority. The agency is working to improve the 237-unit complex. But the latest plan to build a new three-story building for seniors will mean 31 families have to find new homes. [LARA CERRI   |   Tampa Bay Times]
  4. Coming soon at two Tampa Bay area hospitals: a cancer treatment that could replace chemo


    A new cancer treatment that could eventually replace chemotherapy and bone marrow transplants — along with their debilitating side effects — soon will be offered at two of Tampa Bay's top-tier hospitals.

    Dr. Frederick Locke at Moffitt Cancer Center in Tampa is a principal investigator for an experimental therapy that retrains white blood cells in the body's immune system to fight cancer cells. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved these so-called "CAR-T" treatments for adults this month. In trials, 82 percent of cases responded well to the treatment, and 44 percent are still in remission at least eight months later, Locke said. [CHRIS URSO   |   Times]
  5. Regulator blasts Wells Fargo for deceptive auto insurance program


    Wells Fargo engaged in unfair and deceptive practices, failed to properly manage risks and hasn't set aside enough money to pay back the customers it harmed, according to a confidential report by federal regulators.

    Wells Fargo engaged in unfair and deceptive practices, failed to properly manage risks and hasn't set aside enough money to pay back the customers it harmed, according to a confidential report by federal regulators.
[Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images, 2017]