TALLAHASSEE — Over the objections of some residents, elected officials and environmental groups, the governor and Cabinet on Tuesday embraced Progress Energy's 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 is not the final hurdle for Progress' plant, which still needs to secure federal approval. But the unanimous Cabinet endorsement helps cement what is likely to be a new era of nuclear plant construction, with Florida Power and Light also planning to build a new nuclear plant at Turkey Point in Miami-Dade County.
"We need to diversify our energy resources," said Crist, who is pushing for new legislation that emphasizes energy production from solar, nuclear, wind, wave and biofuel sources. "The more diversified we are, the more opportunity we have to never suffer when one is less available than the other."
Jeff Lyash, Progress Energy Florida's president and CEO, hailed the Levy County plant as a major step toward Florida's "clean energy" future. He insisted the plant will save customers money over time while creating more than 5,000 jobs and reducing carbon dioxide emissions.
"This will save customers approximately $1 billion a year by lowering fuel costs," Lyash told the Cabinet. "And it will give this state a much-needed economic boost."
What Lyash did not mention was the cost to consumers, which will begin years before the plant produces any energy.
Progress has a request before the Public Service Commission to raise its base rate by 30 percent, a move that company spokeswoman Suzanne Grant said would generate about $500 million for improvements to existing power plants and electricity services.
On top of that, the St. Petersburg-based utility wants state approval to bill residential customers a monthly "nuclear charge" of $6.69 per month per 1,000 kilowatt-hours starting in 2010 to help pay for the nuclear plant, which would not be operational until at least 2018. FPL is seeking a similar base rate increase and could request a fee to help pay for its new nuclear plant, which would not be up and running for at least eight years.
Critics who spoke out Tuesday seemed more concerned about the plant's impact on the environment than on their wallets.
Lyash stressed that Progress plans to shut down its coal-burning plant in Crystal River when the nuclear plant opens. Environmental leaders nonetheless worry about the potential dangers of nuclear power. And they are concerned what the plant will do to wetlands at the 5,100-acre site north of Inglis.
The utility's plans call for wiping out about 765 acres of wetlands, according to the Army Corps of Engineers.
Mike Sole, head of the Florida Department of Environment Protection, said his department "will work diligently to minimize this impact."
The Florida DEP still has to approve a water permit for the Progress plant, but the federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission has the final stamp of approval.
Progress had hoped to start producing power from the Levy County plant in 2016, but construction is delayed until at least March 2018 because the NRC will not allow Progress to begin building anything before all site and safety reviews are complete.
Three environmental groups — the Ecology Party of Florida, the Green Party of Florida and the Nuclear Energy and Resource Service — have challenged the plant's federal license. The NRC's Atomic Licensing Board recently concluded that the three groups successfully raised "certain major issues" about the environmental impact that warrant a full-fledged hearing.
For example, Progress has not determined where it will send the new plant's radioactive waste.
"I am concerned about the danger and about the legacy we are leaving to our children," state Rep. Michelle Rehwinkle-Vasilinda, D-Tallahassee, told Cabinet members. "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."
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 the aquifer and the Withlacoochee River, plus the wildlife species that depend on them.
NRC officials also said the utility may not have adequately addressed the impact of "salt drift" into the remaining wetlands on the site.
Cara Campbell, chair of the Ecology Party of Florida, said the Cabinet decision was "pretty premature, considering all the faults we found."
She said they should have waited to see how the environmental groups' challenge to the plant's federal permit turned out.
"I'm disappointed but not surprised," said Beth Foley, a Levy County resident who opposes the nuclear plant. "I wish our environment was higher on the list of things that our elected officials care about."
Times staff writer Craig Pittman contributed to this report. Shannon Colavecchio can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (850) 224-7263.