JUNO BEACH, Fla. — Should FPL customers pay for the licensing and planning for a nuclear power reactor even if it's never built?
A Florida group is fighting back against a law that allows Juno Beach-based Florida Power & Light Co. and other electric utilities to collect money from customers for new nuclear plants regardless of whether the plants are ever launched. FPL customers are facing additional charges for improvements at FPL's nuclear plants as well as costs for future upgrades.
Barry White, vice president of Citizens Allied for Safe Energy in Miami, said the group's goal is to flood the Florida Public Service Commission with 10,000 letters, emails, faxes and phone calls before an Oct. 24 vote.
That's when the commission is scheduled to decide whether to authorize FPL to spend another $196 million on its nuclear projects in 2012.
"They are spending our money for things that will probably never be built in a market where the role of nuclear is questionable," White said. "We want the $196 million rejected."
The money would mostly go toward upgrades of reactors at FPL's St. Lucie plant on Hutchinson Island and Turkey Point plant in Miami-Dade County, with 8 percent, or $24 million, for pre-construction costs such as planning and licensing for two new reactors proposed for Turkey Point.
FPL is asking the commission to approve an additional 23 cents a month that would begin with January's bills for improvements and increased capacity at the two nuclear plants that are already operating.
FPL is seeking approval for nuclear planning costs that would add $1.76 to the typical bill. Along with increased energy conservation and environmental costs, the typical customer bill could increase by $2.81, to $99.35 from $96.54.
FPL spokeswoman Jackie Anderson said investments in nuclear power save customers money that would be spent on fossil fuel.
Sorry, customers: No refunds
FPL's $2.3 billion to $2.5 billion nuclear upgrade is adding capacity to its four nuclear units, Anderson said. Capacity that went into service this year is saving about $30,000 per day in fossil fuel costs.
The project is expected to save customers an estimated $141 million in its first full year of operation; over the operating lifetime of the added capacity, it is expected to save customers $4.8 billion on fossil fuel costs, Anderson said.
Sara Barczak, program director for the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy, which has opposed FPL's nuclear cases before the PSC for the past three years, said that with the drop in demand for electricity in Florida, the new reactors are not needed.
If FPL decides not to build the reactors, a project estimated to cost up to $18 billion and now slated to be in service by 2022 or 2023, customers will not get a refund. FPL officials have said they will decide whether to build the reactors once the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission grants the license. That effort is under way.
"Ratepayers are paying in advance for something that is speculative at best," Barczak said.
The reactors that FPL has indicated it will use at Turkey Point have not yet received final certification, according to the NRC.
"The fact that we won't get refunded that money if they don't build it is obscene," Loxahatchee resident and activist Alex Larson said. "The most appalling thing is the ratepayers are not asking enough questions."
James Whitlock, a Hot Springs, N.C.-based attorney representing the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy, said the law that allows utilities to collect advance payment for nuclear costs shifted the burden from shareholders to ratepayers.
"The biggest thing is that they have no skin in the game. There is no risk. It is all on the Florida ratepayers," Whitlock said.
Effect from Japan disaster
This month, state Rep. Michelle Rehwinkel Vasilinda, D-Tallahassee, reintroduced a bill to repeal the law. Sen. Mike Fasano, R-New Port Richey, proposed similar action during the last legislative session and still supports it, his spokesman Greg Giordano said.
Citizens Allied for Safe Energy also is fighting nuclear expansion at the highest level. The group is an intervenor in FPL's application for the two proposed reactors at Turkey Point pending before the NRC's Atomic Safety and Licensing Board.
After the Fukushima disaster in Japan, the NRC received petitions asking it to stop all decisions related to nuclear plant license renewals. Though the NRC did not do that, it is analyzing what can be learned from Japan.
In July, the NRC's Japan Task Force released a 96-page report with recommendations aimed at increasing safety at the nation's 104 nuclear reactors.
NRC spokesman Roger Hannah said it's likely that some plants - it's not known which ones - will have to make changes that could be implemented
within the next few months, while other recommendations might take years to implement.
On Thursday, the Union of Concerned Scientists launched a campaign to highlight its concerns about the safety of the nation's nuclear reactors and compel Congress, the White House and the NRC to do a better job of protecting Americans from a nuclear accident.
"UCS is neither for nor against nuclear power," said the group's Sean Meyer. "Our goal is to protect the public by making nuclear power safer. Our campaign is intended to ensure we won't go back to business as usual after Fukushima. What happened at Fukushima could happen here, and we need to strengthen safeguards to make sure it doesn't."