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Trigaux: Abandoning another nuclear project, Duke Energy mimics its failed Levy plant

After years of hemming, hawing and spending hundreds of millions of dollars, Duke Energy on Friday said it will abandon plans to build a new nuclear power plant at its Lee Nuclear Station site in South Carolina.

Just to finish this sordid tale properly, the giant power company will seek regulatory approval to recoup the $368 million in preliminary costs spent on the now-ditched plant by charging its North and South Carolina ratepayers for up to the next dozen years.

If that happens — and chances are good the utility's Carolina customers will be forced to cover that huge sum via higher electric rates — then Duke once again will have insulated itself from any financial risk in its latest failed attempt to build a new nuclear power plant. Duke aims to charge customers — not shareholders — for taking on what has proved to be bad and very expensive decisions.

Sound familiar?

Let's call it what it is. Duke Energy just "pulled a Levy."

RELATED COVERAGE: Duke Energy to cancel proposed Levy County nuclear plant

Because that is precisely what happened several years ago to Duke Energy Florida ratepayers. The power company planned to build a new nuclear plant in Levy County, north of Tampa Bay, but abandoned that project after spending more than $1 billion. Duke kept the project going long enough to get a federal license for the plant, meaning it could in theory revive its nuclear plans there.

That's extremely unlikely. Westinghouse, the company behind the current generation of new nuclear power plants in this country, went bankrupt this year. For good reason.

U.S. nuclear plants have become economically vulnerable to run and absurdly overpriced to build. Earlier this summer, plans for a separate, new South Carolina nuclear power plant well under construction was disbanded due to runaway costs. Belatedly, the consortium of power companies backing that project realized that nuclear power plants are too expensive to compete in today's age of cheap natural gas and rising competition from solar and other renewable energy sources.

RELATED COVERAGE: Blind to runaway costs, nuclear power industry abandons another nuke plant.

"We're glad that Duke is cutting the losses it must share with the public," stated Jim Warren, executive director of NC WARN, a watchdog group and energy efficiency advocate that frequently scraps with Duke over its policies. "Duke Energy executives invested 12 years and over a half-billion public dollars at the Lee project alone hoping to build nuclear plants.

"Sadly," he said, "it validates the long-running concerns that the nuclear 'renaissance' would waste precious time and resources that should have gone toward proven measures that would slow the climate crisis."

Duke Energy made the right decision to "pull a Levy" on its proposed Lee nuclear plant. It just waited far too long to do so.

Not that Duke had much incentive to act responsibly sooner.

If you were building the 8th Wonder of the World at fantastic expense at no risk to yourself and with other people's money, where's the harm?

You can thank the Florida Legislature for a 2006 law empowering Duke and other power companies to charge others for their absurd nuclear spending. And you can condemn every legislator since then for allowing this law to remain on the books.

RELATED COVERAGE: Duke Energy Florida again ranks last in J.D. Power customer satisfaction survey.

Further south in Florida, NextEra Energy Inc. has said it's decided to "pause" an expansion of its Turkey Point nuclear plant south of Miami, according to a Bloomberg news report. But NextEra still seeks approval to obtain and then maintain a federal license for two reactors there.

Duke, it should be noted, on Friday announced its plan to cancel the Lee nuclear project in a rate filing in the Carolinas seeking a whopping 13.9 percent bump in electric rates.

In Florida, Duke Energy just asked for an 8.5 percent bump that would raise its rates to $128.54 for 1,000 kilowatt hours. That's more than neighboring Tampa Electric or FPL charge for electricity.

Included in that higher price: an increase from $1.56 to $4.02 per 1,000 kWh — part of the ongoing money Duke will get to recover costs from the abandoned Levy nuclear project.

Contact Robert Trigaux at rtrigaux@tampabay.com. Follow at venturetampabay.

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