Four state senators from Tampa Bay acknowledged Thursday the flaws in a 2006 state law that allows power companies to charge ratepayers in advance for nuclear plants that may never be built. They proposed some helpful changes but stopped short of calling for the law to repealed. Still, this is progress and signals the best chance yet that Duke Energy customers may get some needed relief.
Republican Sens. John Legg of Lutz, Jack Latvala of Clearwater, Jeff Brandes of St. Petersburg and Wilton Simpson of New Port Richey have not yet submitted their legislation. They explained in broad terms their plan to change the law so that companies that fail to build a promised nuclear plant cannot profit from the process, or if they do, the profit margins are smaller. If a nuclear plant is not built, the electric company would return to ratepayers any profit, not actual construction costs. The 2006 law might expire two or three years from now, unless Duke Energy or Florida Power & Light, the two companies that have taken advantage of the law, have begun constructing a nuclear power plant.
That's a start to reforming a law that could cost Floridians' billions of dollars with still no guarantee their investments will pay off. Earlier this month, Duke Energy announced it would abandon the broken Crystal River nuclear plant, where ratepayers have already spent $500 million for upgrades. It also remains highly uncertain if Duke will build a proposed nuclear plant for Levy County, whose cost has jumped from $5 billion to $24 billion — and consumers are already on the hook for about $1.5 billion.
The senators said they don't want to repeal the law because they don't want to give up on nuclear power. But the future may already be here. Recent innovations in drilling for natural gas have dramatically lowered prices, and the utilities' inability to find private investors for nuclear plants — even as they shift significant costs onto consumers — speaks volumes about the economic viability of new large-scale nuclear plants.
The senators' plan isn't perfect, but it's a reasonable start. The rest of the Florida Legislature should get on board.