RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
That accident is one of the reasons why Americans have not built a new nuclear power plant for decades. Now nuclear energy is on the edge of a boom. Seventeen power companies in the U.S. are making plans to build dozens of plants. These would be among the most expensive projects ever built in the United States. But the companies are willing to build the plants in part because you will help pay for them.
NPR's Greg Allen reports.
GREG ALLEN: The scene was in Tallahassee. Florida's Public Service Commission voted to approve the state's first new nuclear plants in decades. Commission member Nathan Skop hailed the decision.
Mr. NATHAN SKOP (Public Service Commission, Florida): Simply put, nuclear power is a strategic investment for the state of Florida and our national security to reduce our dependence on foreign oil and to protect our environment.
ALLEN: For most of the past 30 years, the idea of a boom in nuclear plant construction seemed far-fetched. Concerns about safety, uncertainty about how to handle nuclear waste and the high cost of plant construction all made proposals for new plants seem unlikely.
But Steve Kerekes of the trade group Nuclear Energy Institute says seven proposals for new plants are now before the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, and dozens more are in the pipeline.
Mr. STEVE KEREKES (Nuclear Energy Institute): When you look at government projections for U.S. need for about 30 percent more electricity by 2030 and then you couple that with increasing concerns about climate change and greenhouse emissions and air quality - that, coupled with the proven performance at our existing plants, is causing people to look at adding more nuclear power plants over the coming decade.
ALLEN: And into that the spiking cost of natural gas.
In Florida, two energy companies have new plants in the works: Progress Energy and Florida Power and Light. FPL's proposal is the one approved last week by Florida regulators. The plants would benefit from federal subsidies and also a new state law. In 2006, Florida's legislature passed a measure that allows utilities to recover from ratepayers the cost of plant construction when it's incurred — years before the plant goes online.
And those costs can be eye-popping. Florida Power and Light estimates its two new plants will cost as much as $24 billion. Progress Energy projects that its new plants will cost at least $14 billion. Buddy Eller, a company spokesman, says because of that high cost, if it weren't for the new Florida law, Progress Energy wouldn't have considered the project.
Mr. BUDDY ELLER (Spokesman, Progress Energy): In no other industry do you commit the type of capital that you would commit to build a project of this size that takes nine to 10 years, from the filing of the need through the construction process, you know, without recouping any of the cost associated with that project.
ALLEN: Consumer activists point out that ratepayers aren't sharing just the cost of new plant construction, but also the risk. In the 1980s, as costs rose and public opinion soured, dozens of nuclear plants under construction were abandoned.
New laws in Florida, Georgia and many other states where plants are proposed now allow utilities to charge ratepayers whether the units are completed or not.
Bill Newton heads Florida's Consumer Action Network. Newton says so far, he's seen little sign that Floridians are concerned at the prospect that the state may soon have four costly new nuclear plants under construction. But he says that may change.
Mr. BILL NEWTON (Head of Florida's Consumer Action Network): You know, a good 10 years before the plant actually comes on line, we're going to start being billed for it, and that billing is just going to increase as the costs increase. And when the public becomes aware that there's no requirement that they ever see anything for this money, I think we're going to see some anger and some outrage.
ALLEN: Florida Power and Light officials declined to be interviewed on tape for this story. Progress Energy officials say the company expects its customers' bills to rise, on average, no more than four percent each year during construction. And when the new plants go online — hopefully in 2016 — they expect it will save ratepayers collectively over a billion dollars a year.
Greg Allen, NPR News, Miami.
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