A Florida Senate plan won't reimburse Progress Energy customers who have been paying for years for a nuclear power plant that may never be built, but at least it would ensure that in the future, utilities can't earn profits on such failures. The vote Monday by a Senate committee to bring tighter scrutiny to the state's so-called nuclear advance fee is a step in the right direction and it is the least legislators can do to protect consumers.
The vote by the Senate public utilities committee is the first in seven years to acknowledge the fundamental flaws of the 2006 law that allowed utilities to charge consumers in advance for proposed nuclear power plants — and make a hefty profit in the process even if they failed. Under the amended plan in SB 1472, pushed by a group of Tampa Bay area senators, utilities would need to succeed at obtaining a federal license for a new nuclear plant before being able to shift much of the advance cost onto consumers. The bill would also set benchmarks and deadlines for utilities for initiating construction and reporting on its progress — something sorely missing in current law. And there is a plan for a specific review of Progress Energy's dubious Levy County project.
Such scrutiny is missing from the state's current law, which has become apparent to customers of Progress Energy, the state's second-biggest utility acquired last year by Duke Energy of Charlotte, N.C. Though the company has yet to obtain a federal license for the proposed Levy County plant from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, it has charged consumers $1.5 billion in advance costs (including $150 million in profit) with little scrutiny and no guarantee the facility will ever be built.
Costs for the plant have ballooned from $5 billion to $24 billion since it was first proposed. And the energy market has dramatically changed as well, from the advent of fracking and the resulting drop in natural gas prices to the Great Recession's impact in slowing growth in energy demand in Florida. There's also growing skepticism about nuclear power since the accident in Fukushima, Japan. Just this week, former NRC chairman Gregory B. Jaczko said all 104 U.S. plants need new technology to remain safe. The situation has prompted some financial analysts to predict the Levy plant will never be built. Yet Progress Energy, and now Duke Energy, have been unwilling to say the same.
In an ideal world, lawmakers would consider an outright repeal of the nuclear cost recovery fee, as proposed by Reps. Mike Fasano of New Port Richey and Dwight Dudley of St. Petersburg. Instead, the Legislature is simply considering how to keep the same outrage from occurring again — and running into resistance from utilities all the same. This isn't a solution, but it's better than the status quo. House Speaker Will Weatherford, whose constituents are Progress Energy customers, and Senate President Don Gaetz need to see it through.