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Regulators begin hearings on nuclear charges

Associated Press Modified: September 10, 2012 at 6:30 pm •  Published: September 10, 2012

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (AP) — One of Florida's largest utilities went before state regulators on Monday and asked them to OK charges to help pay for nuclear power plant projects despite lingering doubts about the future of those projects.

Progress Energy wants to charge $4.73 a month to the average residential customer starting next year to cover improvements to its Crystal River plant and to help pay for a new plant in Levy County on Florida's west coast. The charge is not expected to increase overall bills because of declining fuel costs.

The Florida Public Service Commission held a hearing to discuss the charges and is expected to make a decision in November.

But Progress, a subsidiary of North Carolina-based Duke Energy, has already delayed the opening date of the first two units in Levy County and the company CEO has testified that he's not sure if the utility will repair or shut down the reactor in Crystal River. It has been sitting idle since 2009.

Company executives continued to insist the Levy County project remains "feasible" despite the delays.

Jeffrey Lyash, executive vice president of energy supply for Duke Energy, said that the best course was to delay the planned plant for three years amid changes in the economy and to get a better idea on what will happen with other fuel sources such as natural gas.

But Lyash stressed that the company could always "reaccelerate" the project at a later date as well.

Some of those participating in the hearing raised questions about asking customers to bear some of the costs for the Crystal River plant. It's in a prolonged shutdown due to a crack that occurred in a containment building during an upgrade and maintenance project in 2009.

"It is akin to spending a whole lot of time tire-shopping on a car that may never run again," said Jon Moyle Jr., an attorney representing Florida Industrial Power Users Group.

Utilities historically were not allowed to pass on power plant construction costs until those facilities went into service, but the Legislature made an exception for nuclear facilities in 2006 to encourage the development of that form of energy

Progress is seeking charges to cover nearly $143 million in costs. It already reached a settlement earlier this year where it agreed to refund more than two years of costs related to the nuclear plant shutdown.

Regulators this week are scheduled to take testimony over a request by Florida Power and Light Co. to seek $151 million to upgrade existing facilities at its St. Lucie plant and add two new reactors to its Turkey Point plant.

The Juno Beach-based utility serves 4.6 million homes, businesses and other customers in South Florida and along the Atlantic coast.