For an energy source once touted as too cheap to meter, nuclear power bills sure are piling up. U.S. taxpayers are on the hook for a growing, multibillion-dollar tab to dispose of tons of radioactive waste and Florida's two biggest utilities are seeking another round of rate increases to help pay for new reactors.
The cost of nuclear power takes center stage Wednesday when the state's Public Service Commission opens a series of rate hearings.
Florida Power & Light and Progress Energy are seeking to pass along about $335 million in additional nuclear costs to ratepayers next year. The higher bills would fund upgrades at existing plants and provide additional seed capital for four more proposed reactors.
FPL and Progress say nuclear plants diversify their energy portfolios while reducing reliance on fossil fuels.
"New, advanced-design nuclear power remains the best available technology to provide reliable electric service and to make significant reductions in greenhouse gas emissions," Progress stated in a PSC filing earlier this year.
The utilities also say their decades-old nuclear facilities need work. Progress's Crystal River plant has been offline since 2009, when a wall was damaged during the installation of new generators. The facility is not expected to be back in service until 2014.
But construction of new reactors has been virtually nonexistent. The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission has not granted a construction permit for a new plant nationally since 1978. And amid skyrocketing costs, few utilities have even proposed new facilities.
"The cost of building nuclear power plants is so enormous that investors on Wall Street refuse to engage in such projects," says Thomas Saporito, a West Palm Beach-based nuclear-power expert who has worked both in the industry and at the NRC.
Saporito said the $21 billion cost of FPL's proposed new reactors at Turkey Point south of Miami "is about the entire market-cap of the parent company NextEra Energy."
"So utilities like FPL and Progress Energy Florida convinced state lawmakers to allow recovery of nuclear plant construction costs before the plants are even built and operating," he said.
Some skeptics, in opposing the proposed rate hikes, doubt that the plants will ever be built. Attorneys for environmental groups are pushing for more detailed information about cost and duration of construction.
RADIOACTIVE WASTE PILES UP, WITH NO PLAN IN SIGHT
Meanwhile, radioactive waste in the form of spent fuel rods is piling up. Florida's reactors account for more than 2,000 metric tons of the 65,000 tons awaiting final disposal at the nation's 104 nuclear plants.
And in the wake of Japan's nuclear disaster, skeptics note that the spent-fuel pools at Florida's nuke plants are fuller than those at Fukushima.
As another subsidy for the nuclear industry, the federal government has pledged to dispose of the waste, which remains radioactive for hundreds if not thousands of years. But legal fights, transportation concerns and a prevailing not-in-my-backyard mentality have blocked solutions.
In fact, no federal money is available anyway. The Wall Street Journal reported Tuesday that since the Balanced Budget and Emergency Deficit Control Act of 1985, Congress and successive administrations have funneled a $25 billion disposal fund into the government's general coffers.
Because Washington failed to start taking spent fuel as promised beginning in 1998, utilities are suing it to cover their additional storage costs, the Journal reported. Legal fees are $16.2 billion and counting.
After spending billions to dig a dry-cask storage facility in the Nevada desert, Washington has, for now, scrapped that plan. Last month, the Blue Ribbon Commission on America's Nuclear Future declared that the U.S. nuclear-waste disposal program has "all but broken down."
MEASURING CARBON FOOTPRINTS AND FUTURE BILLS
While Gov. Rick Scott and PSC Chairman Art Graham have expressed continued support for nuclear power in Florida, the industry faces high financial and technical hurdles.
"The NRC has yet to even certify the [proposed] AP1000 nuclear reactor design as being safe for construction and operation," Saporito said.
What's more, environmentalists say nuclear plants are not as "green" as advertised.
"The carbon footprint made during the years and years of construction significantly contributes to global warming. Once the nuclear plants are operating, billions of BTUs are discharged into the environment. This is heat that was not in the environment prior to the operation of the nuclear power plants. So, these nuclear plants definitely increase global-warming concerns," Saporito said.
According to the News Service of Florida, most of FPL's rate request, about $172 million, is related to upgrading its four existing reactors at Turkey Point and St. Lucie. In a filing with state regulators, FPL President and CEO Armando Olivera said the projects would increase the company's nuclear capacity about 15 percent.
The state Office of Public Counsel, which represents consumers, and FPL have sparred over the cost estimates -- a dispute that will undoubtedly spill into the PSC hearings.
As for Progress Energy's plan to build two reactors in rural Levy County, Deputy Public Counsel Charles Rehwinkel said he will likely argue that the utility should only receive roughly half of the $135 million it is requesting.
Rehwinkel told the News Service of Florida he wants the commission to approve the "bare minimum" that Progress needs for costs, such as the lengthy process of licensing the project.
If the PSC accepts Progress's proposal, Rehwinkel estimates that the average customer's bill will increase $50 to $70 a month within three years -- on top of the nuclear-related charges ratepayers have been shouldering since 2009.
The utility says the up-front charges benefit customers by reducing interest costs on construction loans.
Contact Kenric Ward at email@example.com or at (772) 801-5341.