Nuclear power still part of Florida's future energy mix

Does nuclear power have a future here?

The 9.0 earthquake and tsunami that caused partial meltdowns at several nuclear power plants in Japan spurred a worldwide reassessment of reactor safety.

Last week, the German government said it will phase out nuclear power, which supplies 14 percent of the nation's electricity, by 2022. Switzerland, which gets 40 percent of its power from reactors, plans to phase out its nuclear plants by 2034.

Locally, the focus is on the proposed nuclear plant in Levy County.

The St. Petersburg Times spoke with Progress Energy, the state Public Service Commission and the Florida Consumer Action Network about where we stand with such issues as the cost recovery fees paid for the proposed nuclear plant, construction delays and the timetable for reopening the existing nuclear facility in Citrus County. Here is what we found out.

What is the status of the proposed Levy County nuclear plant?

Progress Energy continues to move forward with construction plans for the plant on a 5,000-acre site 4 miles north of Inglis. The utility is awaiting approval of an operating license from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, which is expected in late 2012 or early 2013.

The original planned completion date was 2016, but regulatory delays forced Progress to move the completion date until at least March 2018.

Progress Energy will review cost and regulatory requirements before starting construction and has stated that at this point it is considering all options when it comes to moving forward or discontinuing the project.

Does the Levy plant face any specific obstacles?

The federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission said it has new concerns about the Westinghouse AP1000 reactor design, which Progress Energy plans to use.

The NRC wants proof that the concrete outer building that protects the reactor will be tough enough to withstand external attack and contain peak pressures from inside if something goes wrong.

What is the nuclear cost recovery fee Progress Energy customers pay as part of their bills?

To encourage the development of nuclear power, state lawmakers passed legislation that allows utilities to collect some nuclear plant project costs from customers during the pre-construction and construction process.

If Progress abandons the project, what happens to the cost recovery fee money the company has already collected from its customers?

Progress customers would likely not get back any of the money. State law allows the utility to collect the fee and pay for any expenses for pre-construction as well as actual construction of the plant.

So the utility can collect the fee as long as there are expenses related to the project.

How much are Progress Energy customers paying for the recovery fee?

The average customer pays about $5.53 per month. The utility announced last month that it is seeking a slight decrease in the fee, which would save the average household 33 cents a month beginning in January.

Has North Carolina approved an advanced fee for construction of Progress Energy nuclear plants?

No. Though the utility had hoped for such a fee in North Carolina, the problems in Japan derailed proposals for legislation that would have allowed it.

When is Progress Energy's Crystal River Nuclear Plant expected to go back online?

No date has yet been set.

Progress had planned to reopen the Citrus County nuclear plant in April after shutting it down in September 2009 to refuel and replace giant steam generators. But during that process, workers found a gap in the 42-inch-thick building containment wall. The refueling and replacement project was supposed to take about three months.

Last month, Progress Energy's chief executive said the utility had found a second gap in the plant's concrete containment wall during the recent late stages of retensioning the building.

The utility has not set a date for when repairs of the new gap will be complete and the plant will be available to reopen.

Crystal River 3's current operating license expires in 2016. The company applied for a 20-year renewal of that license in 2008.

What is the status of the merger between Progress Energy and Duke Energy?

In January, Progress Energy and Duke Energy announced plans to merge the two North Carolina-based companies to form the nation's largest utility based on customers and energy generation capacity. The plan continues to move through the regulatory process.

Ivan Penn can be reached at ipenn@sptimes.com or (727) 892-2332. Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/Consumers_Edge and find the Consumer's Edge on Facebook.

Nuclear power still part of Florida's future energy mix 06/04/11 [Last modified: Saturday, June 4, 2011 5:31am]

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