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Builders pessimistic about new nuclear plants

Published Jan. 11, 2013

New nuclear power plants don't have much of a near-term future in the United States.

Who says?

The nuclear construction industry.

An article in an industry publication last week noted that low natural gas prices and the sputtering economy reduce the need for new nuclear plants. It said four new reactors — two in Georgia and two in South Carolina — are likely to be the only ones the nation will see for the rest of this decade, possibly longer.

"Four new reactors will be added to the grid, but a fifth could be pushing it," said K. Steiner-Dicks, a journalist reporting for the nuclear plant construction industry publication Nuclear Energy Insider.

The free market is also frowning on nuclear power.

Dominion Power announced last year that it would close its 556-megawatt Kewaunee nuclear plant in Wisconsin because it was no longer economically viable.

Platts, a leading global energy provider, reported last week that several other nuclear plants face early shutdown because of economics, including Entergy's 838-megawatt James A. FitzPatrick plant in New York, and its 605-megawatt Vermont Yankee plant.

Even with the shifting landscape in the power industry, millions of Floridians in the areas served by Duke Energy (parent company of Progress Energy Florida) and Florida Power & Light continue to pay in advance for new nuclear plants that critics believe will never get built.

Duke Energy has yet to decide whether it will build the proposed $24 billion Levy County nuclear plant, for which the utility's 1.6 million Florida customers already have paid more than $750 million. Duke will collect more than $1 billion from customers by 2017 whether the utility builds the plant or not.

Suzanne Grant, a Duke spokeswoman, said the utility is working to ensure Florida maintains a diverse energy mix. An overdependence on one source such as natural gas could subject customers to spikes in electric prices if fuel costs rise.

"There are only a few states that are as dependent on natural gas as Florida is," Grant said. The Levy nuclear plant "continues to be the best long-term base load operator we have available."

The five members of the state Public Service Commission declined to comment about their ongoing approval of the nuclear plant construction fee because of a lawsuit against the charge pending before the Florida Supreme Court.

Cindy Muir, a spokeswoman for the commission, said in a statement that state law determines how commissioners decide whether to continue to allow the advance fee. Muir said a bill before the Legislature seeks to repeal the law.

"The FPSC will continue to work within established rules that keep Florida's energy supply safe and reliable," Muir said.

Critics of the advance fee law say the commission has wide latitude to decide whether Floridians pay the fee or not and have simply given utilities what they want.

Susan Glickman, a lobbyist for the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy, which filed the lawsuit to overturn the advance fee, noted that the law gives the commission discretion to determine if a fee is "prudent" and "reasonable."

"I don't think it's prudent to collect money from the public for plants that aren't going to get built," Glickman said. "Just stop this really bad practice."

Last fall, the Supreme Court heard the Southern Alliance's arguments that the law is unconstitutional but has yet to rule on the case.

Meanwhile, state Rep. Michelle Rehwinkel Vasilinda, D-Tallahassee, filed a bill for the upcoming legislative session to repeal the law. Vasilinda said that when state lawmakers passed the law in 2006, they went against their own mantra of not picking winners and losers, in favor of nuclear power.

"Get rid of the propping up of new nuclear and start toward more of a free market," Vasilinda said.

Dave Scanzoni, a Duke spokesman, said decisions about the future of its nuclear fleet have to be made with a long-term view. Although there are short-term concerns, Scanzoni said that in the long run, nuclear provides a substantial amount of clean energy without price fluctuations.

"There's a lot of complexity involved in the nuclear question," Scanzoni said. "Long term, as a policy question: Do we want to be totally dependent on natural gas?''

The Nuclear Energy Insider article said that while there is little demand for new nuclear plants in the United States, "the U.S. nuclear sector is going to focus largely on its progress as a nuclear technology exporter.''

The article points to interest in India and China in more nuclear technology, which will likely be a focal point of the industry in the near term.

"While the U.S. electricity supply and demand ratios are not currently in the nuclear sector's favor for increased power production, on the other side of the world the situation could not be more different," the article said.

Ivan Penn can be reached at ipenn@tampabay.com or (727) 892-2332.

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