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Trigaux: Blind to runaway costs, nuclear power industry abandons another nuke plant

You know nothing, nuclear power industry.

At least when it comes to deciding when and how to build a new nuclear power plant.

Florida's nuke industry has already been there, flubbed that. Duke Energy wanted a new nuclear power plant in Levy County north of Tampa. The project began a decade ago only to get shelved when it became uncomfortably clear the plant would soon drown in massive cost overruns.

Nobody learned the lesson.

The latest evidence: This week's decision by two South Carolina power companies to abandon their years-long joint project to construct two new nuclear power reactors at the V.C. Summer nuclear station northwest of Columbia, S.C.

In all, Scana Corp. – parent of South Carolina Electric & Gas – and Santee Cooper have spent about $9 billion on an effort little more than one third complete. Analysts estimate the plant could have ultimately cost more than $23 billion, more than double the original price tag.

SCE&G customers already have paid $1.4 billion thanks to nine different rate increases.

"Many factors outside our control have changed since inception of this project," Scana CEO Kevin Marsh stated. "Ceasing work on the project was our least desired option, but this is the right thing to do at this time."

Hardly the voice of optimism.

Billions upon billions spent for essentially nothing. South Carolina ratepayers likely to get stiffed for the flood of red ink. Regulators failing to be tough overseers. Captive state legislators too eager to bow to rich power companies.

It all adds up to another black eye — and there have been many — for nuclear power in the United States. Nuclear's vague promise to cut carbon dioxide and ease global warming has been poorly promoted and fallen on deaf ears. And there's still no good solution for nuclear waste.

But wait. There's more. At least 16 aging nuclear plants across the country are in the process of being shut down. Some are deemed by their owners as too expensive to operate against cheap natural gas and will close even before reaching their 40-year lifespans.

Now toss in the April bankruptcy of Westinghouse, the Toshiba-owned designer and maker of the obviously hard-to-build AP1000 nuclear power plant that's been the 21st century's nuke of choice here and abroad.

PREVIOUS COVERAGE: Westinghouse files for bankruptcy, in a blow to nuclear power industry

With the South Carolina project now heading to the dust bin, only one active nuclear power plant construction project in the country is still under way. Southern Power Co.'s Vogtle plant in rural Georgia is, of course, struggling with the same delays and extraordinary cost overruns.

If this plant ever becomes operational, it's doubtful it will ever justify the rich sums spent to build it.

"South Carolina is joining a dozen other U.S. states with multibillion-dollar ruins in the place of promised nuclear plants," stated Peter Bradford, a former commissioner of the federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission and a frequent critic of the industry's mismanagement.

"From Seabrook 2 and Shoreham in the Northeast to Midland, Marble Hill and Zimmer in the Midwest, to the Washington Public Power Supply System in the Northwest and back across the country to Clinch River and Bellefonte in Tennessee in Alabama and Levy County in Florida," he said, "the list of cancelled billion-dollar nuclear plants represents mountains of money that could have contributed to useful energy infrastructure."

All of this should sound painfully familiar to Florida readers.

In 2006, Progress Energy Florida, later bought by Duke Energy, swore Florida needed a new nuclear power plant in Levy County. Early construction quickly ran into astounding cost overruns. Forecasts to finish the project soared wildly to $25 billion and as high as $30 billion.

RELATED COVERAGE: Duke Energy quietly builds a $1.5 billion plant in Citrus County

Duke, which inherited the project from Progress Energy, kept the Levy charade going long enough to earn a federal license — good for kickstarting a new nuke plant in the future — then shut down the project with a blase "never mind."

Duke Energy Florida customers will be stuck for years with higher rates to pay off the $1 billion-plus spent on Levy while never getting a single watt of electricity out of it.

Maybe that's a bargain. South Carolina customers of the abandoned V.C. Summers nuclear plant look to be on the hook for far more.

None of these projects would have seen the light of day if state laws had not been enacted to shift the financial risk of grotesquely expensive nuclear plants from power company shareholders and dumped it all on hapless ratepayers.

Utility customers typically have no other choice for their electricity. Florida's law, signed in 2006 by then Gov. Jeb Bush, was a loser from day one. Shame on Tallahassee for still having it on the books 11 years later.

Contact Robert Trigaux at Follow @venturetampabay.