tampabay.com

Progress embraces nuke path

Now the utility's CEO faces the task of selling his vision to Floridians.

By Robert Trigaux
Published December 13, 2006


Jeff Lyash arrived early Tuesday morning at the St. Petersburg Times, eager to explain his power company's decision to pick a rural southern Levy County site just off U.S. 19 for what will likely become be the first new nuclear power plant in Florida in about 30 years.

His message? "It's important to have a new nuclear plant in Florida."

It would be the first of many stops Tuesday for the Progress Energy Florida CEO to promote, celebrate and defend a new nuke plant in Levy. It had become an inside joke at the power company in St. Petersburg that the long gestation period for picking a new site was finally over, allowing Progress "to give birth."

Well, break out the cigars. The newborn, $3-billion nuke plant will deliver electricity to as many as 700,000 of the state's power-sucking homes when it goes online in 2016.

Progress Energy is happy because it got a 3,000-acre chunk of undeveloped Levy land with access to a critical saltwater canal, where it can build a 1,200-megawatt plant. Levy County, long out of the economic development loop, is mostly delighted though some already lament the rural intrusion to get a multibillion-dollar investment and 500 future jobs paying in excess of $80,000 a year.

Not many of those pay scales are lurking in Levy. Economic change is afoot.

And Citrus County? Lyash must ease the pain of losing out to neighboring Levy by a handful of miles. Progress Energy pays close to $30-million in taxes to Citrus for its Crystal River complex, and is among the county's biggest employers. Now Levy will be the tax beneficiary of the new site's rich assets.

There are other reasons Levy was picked.

It was easier to buy the full 3,000-acre parcel from timber company Rayonier than to wrangle with multiple landowners and cobble together another site of equal size. As Progress Energy for months wandered its 35 counties hunting for potential sites, its greatest fear was that land speculators would track their plans and inflate property prices ahead of them.

Putting the new plant 8 miles from the existing nuke plant lets Progress Energy tap its existing facility for warehouse space and expertise. But it's far enough away, Lyash argued, to avoid a storm surge from the gulf and, frankly, the threat of a terrorist event damaging two nuke plants at once.

The Levy site, while farther inland, still allows the new nuke plant to tap gulf saltwater via the Cross Florida Barge Canal. That avoids the political headache the power company would have faced had it chosen a location requiring precious freshwater to be diverted to cool a new plant.

The not-too-distant University of Florida is one of just four East Coast schools that has its own nuclear reactor and trains nuclear engineers. That's a rare resource for future hires, Lyash noted.

Even the local community college in Levy is slated to be involved in work force training to assist the future nuke plant.

"There will be a ripple effect in the economy," Lyash said.

Florida's insatiable appetite for more electricity also influenced the power company's decision. The size of new homes has increased by 50 percent in the past 30 years.

That's a lot more space to keep air conditioned, in addition to the increased use of multiple TVs, computers and other "instant-on" electronics that drain power even when not in use.

Oh, yeah. This new Levy site can also accommodate a second reactor in a power plant. Nothing's on the drawing board yet, but this is clearly a pro-nuclear corporation. In the Carolinas, where parent Progress Energy is headquartered, the power company is planning on building a new nuke plant, and also has the option there for a second.

All told, Progress Energy currently operates five nuclear reactors at four locations (including the sole Florida plant at Crystal River). Like it or not, the latest expansion steps in Levy County and in North Carolina could mean four more could be added to the company mix in the coming years.

Of course, energy conservation is a good alternative to more nukes. But most Floridians seem to have little interest so far.

For now, it seems, nuclear power will increasingly keep Florida's lights on and the thermostat at 72 degrees.

Robert Trigaux can be reached at trigaux@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8405.