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Future of nuclear power hazy in Florida

By Tom Flanigan


Tallahassee, FL – The tsunami and nuclear crisis that happened in Japan back in March has caused a worldwide re-examination of atomic energy. As Tom Flanigan reports, this could have a real impact on how Florida produces its electricity in the future.

There are many lessons to be learned from the near-meltdown of the Japanese nuclear power plant in the wake of the devastating tsunami earlier this year. One lesson is that most of in the media had the pronunciation of the city in which the plant is located wrong. The correct way to say the name is: fuh-KOO-shih-muh, not foo-kuh-SHEE-muh. More lessons in a moment, but the nuclear near-catastrophe in Japan has certainly sparked a re-assessment of America's atomic power plants. Three of those plants are in Florida, at Crystal River in Citrus County, St. Lucie in St. Lucie County and Turkey Point in Miami-Dade. Rick Meeker with the Florida State University Center for Advanced Power Systems says they by no means produce the majority of the state's electricity.

"Nuclear is about ten percent of Florida's energy mix and fourteen percent nationwide, I believe. So it's a significant amount, but we still rely mostly on fossil fuels (and) nuclear followed by renewable, which are mostly still hydro."

Florida, by the way, is still a net importer of electricity, deriving more than ten percent of its power from other states. So the state's two largest investor-owned utilities are proposing to expand their nuclear power operations. Mary Bane, who used to work at the Florida Public Service Commission, is special adviser on energy policy to Governor Rick Scott.

"Those plants were determined to be needed and the most cost-effective means of meeting the future demand was for fuel diversity. We have an overly heavy reliance on natural gas that has occurred over a number of years because of the low natural gas prices and also because you can build one of those plants in eighteen months."

That is certainly NOT the case with nuclear, though. Building new nuclear power plants is a very expensive and slow proposition. Florida Power and Light wants to expand its four existing reactors at St. Lucie and Turkey Point, where it also plans to build two new reactors. Progress Energy, which operates Crystal River, proposes two new units in nearby Levy County. The two utilities estimate all this expansion and new construction will cost more than $300 million dollars next year alone. Progress and FP&L want to pass these costs along to their customers. That's opposed by consumer, business and environmental groups. The Florida Public Service Commission will play referee during a multi-day public hearing that gets underway this coming Wednesday.

Even if the money issue is worked out, a major question is, will the new plants be safe? John Kelly, deputy assistant secretary for nuclear reactor technologies for the U.S. Department of Energy insists they will - especially because of past incidents at places like Three Mile Island, Chernobyl and Fukushima.

"We expect that there will be a reassessment of the design basis of these accidents. We need to look at our safety philosophy and perhaps move in the future towards more inherently safe, walk-away designs that don't really require human intervention."

But Steve Comley worries any move to make future reactors safer won't make existing reactors safer. Comley has spent years dogging the nuclear power industry and pointing out problems, such as inferior and dangerous construction.

"The General Accounting Office -GAO - they came out with a report confirming all of our evidence and it listed 72 plants in the United States that had these counterfeit, substandard parts in them and all the plants in Florida were listed."

Comley says he has real concerns about the Crystal River plant, built in 1977. It was shut down earlier this year because of structural deterioration. Progress Energy says it should be back online by 2014. Two years after that, the plant's license is due to expire. The company filed for a license renewal with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission in 2008, requesting an additional 20 years of operation.

"It's unbelievable to me that after Chernobyl and after the Japanese plant more recently that we would even think about re-licensing old plants. I mean we're allowing them to operate these plants beyond the life that they were intended to operate. There's something wrong here."