Duke Energy made the right decision to permanently close the broken Crystal River nuclear plant. Fixing the aging plant was not worth the cost, and at least now ratepayers probably will be paying for a new natural gas-powered plant with the latest technology. Now Duke should give up on building an expensive new nuclear plant in Levy County, and the Legislature should repeal a 2006 law that allows utility customers to be billed for nuclear projects that may never be built.
It has been more than six years since Progress Energy proposed building a new nuclear plant. Since then, the projected cost has jumped from $6 billion to $24 billion and rising. Florida also has endured a deep economic recession, slowing development. Demand for electricity remains stagnant, and ratepayers cannot afford to pay such an exorbitant price for more power when the projected demand is not nearly as high as it was expected to be when the nuclear plant was proposed.
Progress Energy also expected to have an investment partner in the Levy plant. But there have been no announcements, and it is difficult to imagine investors coming forward when demand for power has leveled off and the nuclear plant's construction cost has skyrocketed. Duke Energy, which acquired Progress Energy last year, operates nuclear power plants in other states but should think twice about building this one.
The Legislature should push Duke in the right direction by repealing the law allowing utilities to bill customers in advance for nuclear power projects. That may have been justifiable seven years ago, but it makes no sense in this economy. Progress Energy ratepayers already are on the hook for more than $1.1 billion in costs tied to a plant that may never be built, and the utility is expected to pocket $150 million of that total.
To their credit, House Speaker Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, and Senate President Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, are willing to listen to those concerns. Reps. Mike Fasano, R-New Port Richey, and Dwight Dudley, D-St. Petersburg, are among those fighting to repeal the law. They should be joined by other Tampa Bay lawmakers who want to ensure that their constituents are not saddled with even higher electric bills that would jeopardize the economic recovery.
Tuesday's announcement about retiring the Crystal River nuclear plant is no cause for celebration. Progress Energy customers still will pay a heavy price for this debacle, even with the agreement from the utility's insurer to pay $835 million. The pain will be particularly felt in Citrus County, which will lose hundreds of jobs and should be first in line to get the new natural gas power plant Duke Energy is expected to build. But the decision on the Crystal River nuclear plant is only the first logical step toward a broader discussion about energy in Florida and the Tampa Bay region. The next steps are to repeal the nuclear cost recovery law and give up on the fantasy of building a nuclear plant in Levy County that is unnecessary and unaffordable.