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Progress hopes to build nuclear plant

Progress Energy Florida is interested in building a new nuclear power plant if it finds the right partners, company president and chief executive William Habermeyer said during a Tuesday lunch meeting at Silverthorn Country Club.

Habermeyer did not specify a location for a plant, although Progress Energy spokesman Aaron Perlut confirmed later that Florida would be a possibility.

Habermeyer stressed that the company would need partners to help finance such an expensive endeavor. "The national sentiment is much more pronuclear," said Habermeyer, who met with a group of Hernando County business and community leaders to talk about the utility's improvements over the past three years. "I think we'd be interested in a new nuclear plant, though I don't know that we could go it alone."

National sentiment regarding nuclear power soured after a reactor at Pennsylvania's Three Mile Island overheated and spread radiation over the area in 1979. Then, in 1986, an explosion at a nuclear power plant at Chernobyl, on the border between the Ukraine and Belarus, threw tons of radioactive material into the air.

The most recent nuclear plant to be constructed and come online was the Watts Bar One plant near Spring City, Tenn., which is operated by the Tennessee Valley Authority. Although it began operating in 1996, its construction permit was issued in 1973, said Thelma Wiggins, spokeswoman for the Nuclear Energy Institute.

Progress Energy currently operates four nuclear plants, including the generating plant in Crystal River, which is the largest coal and nuclear plant in the state.

The Raleigh, N.C.-based company is applying for an extension on its federal license to operate the Crystal River nuclear plant, which is set to expire in 2016, Habermeyer said. The extension would allow Progress Energy to operate the plant until 2036.

"If the stars have ever been better aligned for nuclear power, I don't know," Habermeyer said.

Habermeyer cited several reasons for renewed interest in nuclear power, including a draft of a federal energy bill that includes tax incentives to encourage companies to build new nuclear plants.

Habermeyer talked about how the country is overly dependent on natural gas and needs to better diversify its power sources.

Most of Habermeyer's speech focused on Progress Energy's recent efforts to improve service and lower electric rates over the past three years.

When the utility, formerly called Florida Power Corp., was taken over by the North Carolina company, it was charging the highest rates in Florida, Habermeyer said.

"We didn't like to be known as the highest-priced utility in Florida," Habermeyer said.

The company has since cut rates to be "more competitive" and is no longer charging the highest rates, he said.

However, Progress Energy recently filed for a 6.5 percent residential rate increase with the Florida Public Service Commission.

_ Information from Times files was used in this report. Jennifer Liberto can be reached at 848-1434. Send e-mail to libertosptimes.com.

Progress Energy Florida's president William Habermeyer says the company would need partners to help finance such an expensive endeavor.

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