1. Business

In wake of Duke Power's retreat from nuclear, it's time to rebuild industry's credibility

Published Feb. 11, 2014

Now that Duke Energy has finally pulled the plug on the proposed Levy nuclear power plant …

Now that Duke finally closed for good the aging, crippled Crystal River nuke plant …

Now that our state legislators yet again had their knuckles rapped as Yes Men (and Women) too willing to squeeze Florida wallets to pay for the nuclear whims of big power companies …

Maybe it's time for the nuclear power industry to rethink its future. Otherwise it won't have much of one in this state and country.

For all the recent outrage and criticism over the failed nuclear ambitions of Duke Energy (and Progress Energy, which Duke bought) in the Sunshine State, you might be surprised to hear this:

Florida really could use some mix of nuclear power plants in its future. The state already is heavily dependent on natural gas to generate electricity.

We just don't want overpriced nukes shoved down our throats.

So, to the nuclear power folks, here's some friendly advice that might help repair the industry's sour public image and encourage the creation of legitimate nuclear power plants to generate electricity. Even in Florida.

Stop the crony capitalism. Forcing advance fees — courtesy of our legislative lemmings in Tallahassee — on the customers of monopoly electric utilities to help pay for expensive nuclear power plants was a bad idea from the start. Companies like Duke come across as the worst kind of corporate bullies, buying off lightweight lawmakers and pushing their own customer base around with higher rates.

Just because customers can't flee to a competitor is no reason for Duke to abuse its position. Bite the bullet, Duke. Stop forcing customers to pay for high-priced future projects. Use all those dollars and smarts as America's biggest electric utility to rebuild a private sector solution to support new nuclear power plants.

Lead. Don't bully.

Don't bait and switch. Power companies pushing new nuclear plants face dwindling credibility. Why? Because when they "announce" plans for a new nuclear plant, they typically quote a price of about $4 billion to $6 billion per unit, and say it will be completed in a decade. The truth? The plant costs soar, as Duke's Levy plant did to $25 billion, and the completion date lags by many years.

If that does not undermine trust in a power company, this does: Duke gets to keep $150 million in profit of the $1.5 billion it can charge customers for the now-canceled Levy County nuclear plant.

That's just not fair.

Enough with the 'nuclear renaissance' talk. This faded industry phrase needs to be put through a paper shredder. Yes, there are nuclear power plants slowly being built in Georgia and South Carolina. But delays and cost overruns make these plants more vivid examples of bad project management and bureaucracy than success stories. There's no renaissance here.

If nuclear power plants ever regain traction in the United States, they will have to persuade the federal government to be more forthcoming with loan guarantees. Those, in turn, will enable banks and Wall Street firms to find the private capital to back nuclear projects. And those projects will need to happen in a much more timely and cost-efficient way.

If any of that can't happen, maybe the nuclear power industry will need to admit a grim truth: New nuke plants simply are not competitive in this country at this time.

Look at Duke's own recent nuclear track record. It just canceled the Levy County plant. It shut Crystal River in Citrus County for good rather than hazard a pricey fix. In May, it said it's shelving plans to add two new reactors to its Shearon Harris nuclear plant near Raleigh, N.C. And Duke, after tinkering with the site of its proposed Lee Nuclear Station in South Carolina, just learned that the Nuclear Regulatory Commission expects to issue a license for that project in 2016 — three years later than planned.

Solve the radioactive waste stigma. The nuclear power industry's biggest Achilles' heel may be the public's fear of tons of radioactive waste accumulating from spent nuclear fuel rods at power plants. There is still no national repository to store spent nuclear waste. Most will be bottled up in dry storage casks and left to sit on the sites of individual nuclear plants, including the Crystal River site.

That's not a fix. Want to finally put an end to the radioactive stigma?

Find a genuine solution to the disposal or recycling of nuclear fuel waste.

That's credibility.

Robert Trigaux can be reached at