After a hiatus of nearly three decades, nuclear energy is booming. Seventeen power companies in the U.S. are making plans to build more than 30 nuclear plants.
One important factor in the resurgence: new federal and state laws that help utilities pay for nuclear plants that, if completed, would be among the most expensive projects ever built in the country.
One state where nuclear power is making a comeback is Florida. At a meeting last week 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. "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," he said.
Seeing Benefits in Going Nuclear
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. He cites government projections that the U.S. will need about 30 percent more electricity by 2030 and growing concern about greenhouse gas emissions as two reasons for the resurgent interest in nuclear energy.
"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," Kerekes said.
The spiking cost of natural gas is also a factor.
In Florida, two energy companies have new plants in the works: Progress Energy and Florida Power and Light. FPL's proposal was the one approved last week by Florida regulators. The plants would benefit from federal subsidies and from a new Florida law that allows utilities to recover from ratepayers the cost of plant construction when it's incurred — years before the plant goes online.
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.
Progress Energy spokesman Buddy Eller says that because of those high costs, if it weren't for the Florida law, passed in 2006, his firm wouldn't have considered the project.
"In no other industry do you commit the type of capital that you commit a project of this size—that takes nine to 10 years, from the filing of the need through the construction process —without recouping any of the cost associated with that project," Eller says.
Financial Risks for Ratepayers
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.
"A good 10 years before the plant actually comes on line, we're going to start being billed for it," Newton says. "And that billing is just going to increase as the costs increase. As 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."
Florida Power and Light officials declined to be interviewed for this story.
Progress Energy officials say the company expects its customers' bills to increase, on average, no more than 4 percent each year during construction. And when the new plants go online — projected to occur in 2016 — they expect it will save ratepayers collectively more than $1 billion a year.