Florida’s High Court Considers Nuclear Cost Recovery.

Oct 5, 2012

Floridians across the state are paying for nuclear power plants that some say may never be built. A state law let’s utilities charge customers for the plants before they even start construction, but now some are questioning the constitutionality of that measure

Some estimates show Floridians have already paid more than a billion dollars for a nuclear power plant that utility companies haven’t even started building, and that number is expected to keep going up. It’s what some, like state Representative Michelle Rehwinkel Vasilinda, call a hidden tax. The democrat lawmaker from Tallahassee said many of the people who are paying for it might not even be around to benefit from projected lower energy costs that are expected to come with nuclear power. She said some  have even question whether the utilities are going to build the plants at all.

“The timeline on these nuclear power facilities was far out into the future and year after year the amount of money that these power plants were estimated [to cost] to be built was getting larger and larger," Rehwinkel Vasilinda said.

Others argue it’s not a tax, but a rate regulated and approved by the state’s utility regulators—the Public Service Commission. And point out that it’s a fee utilities are allowed to collect under a law passed by the legislature in 2006.  But Rehwinkel Vasilinda said the PSC doesn’t have enough guidelines to effectively administer the law.

“So the legal issue here is an unconstitutional delegation of power that was given to the public service commission,” Rehwinkel Vasilinda said.

Rehwinkel Vasilinda joined several others in a lawsuit claiming the state’s nuclear cost recovery law is unconstitutional because it violates the separation of powers in the Florida constitution. Now they’re asking the state supreme court to decide.

Both sides faced tough questions from the justices during oral arguments for the case Thursday.  Justice Charles Canady pointed out that it’s not a surprise that getting the plants built is taking some time.  

“Isn’t the reality here that these types of projects are very long term projects? They are very complex and the world is a dynamic place and things change. And the recognition that some circumstance may cause things to change is just recognition of reality.” Canady said.

Both justices Peggy Quince and Barbara Pariente raised their eyebrows at the rising cost of the project and Justice Fred Lewis seemed unconvinced that this was an issue the Florida Supreme Court could change.

“You’re raising a political decision, determination made by representatives of the people we have to deal with. We may agree with you on that principal. But we can’t reverse a case on that principal out of this court,” Lewis said.

Lewis said he thinks the legislature might be the best place to address some of the concerns raised by the nuclear cost recovery law. Representative Michelle Rehwinkle Vasilinda said she’s tried to get the law repealed before, but said if the court doesn’t strike it down she’s planning to team up with Senator Mike Fasano who is heading for the House next session, in another attempt to repeal the measure. There’s no deadline for when the court must rule.