by Julie Rose, WFAE
The unfolding nuclear plant crisis in Japan could pose significant problems for Duke Energy’s effort to build a new reactor near Gaffney, SC.
While the world is focused on Japan, Duke Energy executives will appear before the North Carolina Utilities Commission Tuesday asking permission to keep spending millions of dollars on plans for a new nuclear plant in the Carolinas.
“It’s important to keep the nuclear option open for our customers if you look at the safe, reliable and affordable role that nuclear has played over the past three decades for our customers,” says Duke Energy spokesman Jason Walls.
The company will go ahead with its request to the Utilities Commission, despite the ongoing crisis in Japan.
About half of the energy Duke generates in the Carolinas comes from its three nuclear plants – including two in the Charlotte region on Lakes Norman and Wylie. Duke Energy wants to build a fourth near Gaffney and has already spent about $170 million on engineering plans. Now the company wants to spend another $280 million by 2013. Only then does Duke expect to have a federal permit to actually begin construction on the plant.
Because Duke would like to sell that electricity to customers in North and South Carolina, utility regulators in both states need to sign off, and nuclear opponents hope they won’t.
“Why should the public take financial risk for a speculative project that now with the Japan thing, Duke’s project looks even less likely to ever succeed?” says Jim Warren of NC Warn.
If the Utilities Commission allows Duke Energy to keep spending money on preliminary work for the new plant, Duke will be more likely to get permission for a rate increase to recover those costs – even if the plant is never built. Construction expected to be around $11 billion, but getting investors to foot that bill was already a tough challenge before the Japanese crisis began, says former federal nuclear regulator Peter Bradford.
“Ask yourself if you were a banker looking at your television screen and those scenes in Japan over the weekend whether you would think nuclear power was a better or a worse financial risk than you believed a week or ten days before,” says Bradford.
Bradford served on the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission during the Three Mile Island nuclear accident. That event prompted heightened regulations on nuclear plant construction and operation. So, too, will the current Japanese incident, says Bradford.
Duke Energy spokesman Jason Walls says it’s premature to speculate on the possible impact to the company’s nuclear plans. But the company maintains it needs the new nuclear plant to keep up with energy demand in the Carolinas.