South Carolina's construction shutdown should signal Florida's nuclear demise, critics say
By BRUCE RITCHIE 08/02/2017 05:12 AM EDT
TALLAHASSEE — The decision by South Carolina utilities to shut down a nuclear plant under construction should send a signal to other states, including Florida, that a supposed nuclear "renaissance" is over, critics said Tuesday.
Florida Power & Light Co. proposed building two new nuclear units at its Turkey Point power plant south of Miami, but the utility told the Public Service Commission in May that it plans to continue a planning "pause" while it seeks to learn from nuclear plants that were being built in South Carolina and Georgia.
The decision by SCE&G and Santee Cooper utilities to abandon construction in South Carolina nine years after starting shows that the Florida project is doomed, critics said. Duke Energy Florida in 2013 abandoned its plans to build a new nuclear plant in Levy County.
"I think for FPL and the people of Florida this is a time to say basically, wait a second what are we doing here?" said Stephen Smith, executive director of the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy.
"This reactor at [Turkey Point] 6 & 7 will never get built. If FPL wants to pursue the COL [federal license] their shareholder should bare that — not the ratepayers."
FPL wants to defer charging customers for the new nuclear units next year while also not having to submit this year a feasibility analysis as required by PSC rules. But the request to avoid the analysis faces opposition from the Office of Public Counsel, the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy and other intervening groups.
The utility said in its May petition to the PSC that it does not plan to start on pre-construction work and therefore no feasibility analysis is needed. An FPL spokesman reiterated that approach Tuesday in response to comparisons with the South Carolina plant shutdown.
"We said earlier this year that, given the reduced certainty of nuclear construction projects in other states, we are limiting our work in the near term to pursuing the necessary approvals that would enable the option of adding new emissions-free nuclear generation, and that’s the work we continue to do," FPL spokesman Mark Bubriski said.
Peter Bradford, a former Nuclear Regulatory Commissioner, told POLITICO he thinks it would be difficult for FPL now to get Florida regulators to approve charging customers for the project.
"And the cost estimates for the alternatives — renewables and natural gas — have fallen," Bradford said. "So the justification of asking customers to take the risk building nuclear plants — it was weak 10 years ago. It is nonexistent now."
He said 31 new nuclear plants were proposed a few years ago but only about a half dozen still remain in the licensing phase.
The plants in South Carolina and Georgia were the only ones under construction, said Bradford, who has chaired state utility regulatory commissions in Maine and New York.
Duke Energy Florida customers already had paid $1.5 billion towards the Levy County plant before construction even began, the Associated Press reported in 2013. The company scrapped its plans but said last year that it still considered the plant to be a viable option prior to getting its federal license.
The announcement on Monday from the South Carolina utilities that they were abandoning construction came as a federal board rejected a challenge by cities in Miami-Dade County to the FPL license application.
Attorneys representing Miami, South Miami and the Village of Pinecrest told an Atomic Safety and Licensing Board panel in June that FPL's request to the PSC to defer the feasibility analysis, and Westinghouse Electric Co.'s bankruptcy announcement, raised new questions about whether the project is viable and whether FPL can cover the cost, estimated at as high as $20 billion in 2011.
Westinghouse owns the license for the AP1000 nuclear reactor design and was overseeing construction of the plant in South Carolina and Southern Co.'s Plant Vogtle in Georgia, which has been plagued by cost overruns.
Georgia Power last week said it finalized a new service agreement with Westinghouse that provides for Southern Nuclear, a Georgia Power subsidiary, to oversee construction at the site near the Savannah River.
Georgia PSC chairman Stan Wise on Monday warned against comparing the South Carolina and Georgia projects but also said, "I share the concern of my colleagues about the potential risk to ratepayers as each month passes." He asked his agency to develop a schedule by the end of the year for a final decision on whether the project will continue.
The Florida Public Service Commission is scheduled to begin a hearing Aug. 15 on FPL's request to defer its feasibility analysis and nuclear cost recovery for 2018. A decision is expected in September. A PSC spokeswoman said the agency cannot comment on a pending docketed issue.
South Carolina utility representatives on Tuesday blamed Westinghouse for the project's failure, according to The State newspaper. Originally expected to cost $11 billion, the price tag for the two reactors grew to $14 billion and ultimately could have topped $20 billion by the time they would have been completed in 2024, officials said this week.
Some South Carolina legislators also criticized the state law that allows utilities to charge customers for nuclear plants that are under construction, the newspaper reported. Utility customers have been charged $1.4 billion for the halted nuclear plant.
Florida has a similar law that has allowed FPL and Duke Energy to charge customers for those nuclear plants that have not been built.
Bills that would repeal nuclear cost recovery have been filed in the Florida Legislature in recent years, but were voted down or were not heard in committees, as was the case with SB 1100 this year. In 2013, the Legislature passed S.B. 1472 requiring utilities to demonstrate that their projects remain feasible and their costs are reasonable.
Miami city attorney Victoria Méndez told POLITICO on Tuesday in an email, "Early cost recovery statutes need to be revisited by legislators for exactly these types of issues (i.e. Duke energy and South Carolina not completing their projects) as ratepayers are left paying for unfinished projects that don't come to fruition."
FPL's May 1 petition to the PSC can be viewed here.