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Progress Energy nuclear plant is okayed

TALLAHASSEE — Progress Energy's $17-billion nuclear project won unanimous approval Tuesday from state regulators, paving the way for the utility to start charging customers for the plant as early as January.

The decision puts Florida on the forefront of the U.S. "nuclear renaissance," with two of the nation's 23 planned nuclear projects slated for the Sunshine State. Both have now won unanimous approval, a development that would have been next to impossible 30 years ago when multibillion-dollar boondoggles and the Three Mile Island accident brought the nuclear boom to a screeching halt.

The Levy County nuclear plant will be among the most expensive construction projects ever undertaken in Florida. If completed on schedule in 2016, it will be the first nuclear power plant brought online in the state in more than 30 years. Another big utility, Florida Power & Light, completed St. Lucie 2 in 1983 on Florida's east coast.

With no debate, the Florida Public Service Commission swiftly approved the project Tuesday morning. It still faces several regulatory hurdles, but customers will likely pay even if the project stumbles. The impact on electric bills will be decided by the commission at a September hearing.

Progress Energy estimated in March that residential customers would see an increase of about $9 a month. That estimate may have changed as the utility has redacted previously public estimates in recent filings before the commission.

The St. Petersburg utility plans to file this summer for a license from the federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission, which will take two to three years. Progress Energy is also waiting on a review by the state Department of Environmental Protection.

Preliminary construction work could begin next year on the 5,100-acre Levy County site, which stretches north of the Florida Barge Canal along the east side of U.S. 19, several miles north of Crystal River. The utility needs to build access roads, and possibly a barge loading dock in the canal and a rail line to the construction site.

Progress Energy said the project is the best way to meet growing power needs while reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

"Carbon-free nuclear power is a strategic asset in our statewide effort to become energy-independent, to reduce our reliance on more volatile-priced fossil fuels, and to provide a balanced approach to meet the challenges of growth and climate change," said Jeff Lyash, president and chief executive officer of Progress Energy Florida.

Critics have attacked it as too expensive and risky.

"This project has a long ways to go, and there's a lot of money at stake," said Bill Newton, executive director of the Florida Consumer Action Network. "We think it's a big mistake to raise people's power bills for something that may never be needed."

The utility plans to build two Westinghouse AP1000 nuclear reactors at a cost of $14-billion, plus $3-billion for nearly 200 miles of transmission lines through nine counties. The first reactor is schedule to come on line in 2016, and the second the following year.

Asjylyn Loder can be reached at aloder@sptimes.com or (813) 225-3117.

>>FAST FACTS

What does the decision mean for you?

Customers could start seeing the cost of the plant in their monthly bills starting in January. The amount will be determined at a hearing in September.

What's next?

Progress Energy needs to return before the Public Service Commission in September for the rate hearing. The utility also needs to win approval from the Florida Department of Environmental Protection and the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission. The federal licensing application could take two to three years. Progress Energy wants to have the first reactor on line in 2016 and the second the following year.

Sources: Progress Energy, Florida Public Service Commission

Progress Energy nuclear plant is okayed 07/15/08 [Last modified: Saturday, July 19, 2008 10:25am]

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