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PSC's Graham: nuclear power is cheap, secure way for Florida's future

Despite Progress Energy's broken nuclear plant and questions of whether the utility ever will build a second reactor, the chairman of the state Public Service Commission touts nuclear power as a critical source for Florida's future.

Speaking to the St. Petersburg Times editorial board Tuesday, Art Graham said he believes nuclear power remains the least expensive way to generate electricity. He said the problems that have arisen with nuclear plants should not stop future development of reactors.

"I think the biggest mistake we made when Three Mile Island happened was that we turned and ran from it," said Graham, referring to the 1979 meltdown at the nuclear plant near Harrisburg, Pa.

Graham was in the Tampa Bay area with state Public Counsel J.R. Kelly on Tuesday visiting a TECO power station in Polk County. It was an educational site visit of a coal plant that is one of just three in the nation to take coal and turn it into gas to produce electricity — referred to as a type of "clean coal."

Graham, a PSC commissioner since July 2010 and chairman since October, asked the Public Counsel's Office to attend the TECO visit after the Sun-Sentinel newspaper in South Florida reported Friday that he and another state regulator met with utility representatives about pending issues without inviting consumer advocates and others to join the discussion, which would be a violation of state law.

While praising the coal technology, Graham said the state's nuclear power sources have proved to be clean and more efficient.

He would not discuss costs related to Progress Energy's Crystal River nuclear plant, which has been offline for almost two years, because of a nuclear cost recovery hearing next week. Graham, the former recovery engineer with Georgia-Pacific Pulp and Paper and past president of ART Environmental Consulting Services, said he wants to repair the negative views of the PSC.

But his stance on nuclear could be a sticking point for him. Consumer advocates question just how cheap nuclear really is, in particular when troubles arise, such as at Progress Energy's Crystal River nuclear plant.

"The utilities say nuclear is cheaper," said James Fenton, director of the Florida Solar Energy Center at the University of Central Florida. "Nuclear is expensive."

Progress Energy ratepayers continue to pay operational costs for the utility's Crystal River nuclear plant, though it has not generated electricity in almost two years. Workers shut down the reactor for major maintenance and later found two gaps in the reactor's containment building that have kept it offline.

The plant is not expected to return to service until at least 2014. Repairs and the purchase of electricity while the plant remains offline could cost the utility more than $2 billion, costs covered in part by insurance and by Progress Energy customers.

"We strongly feel, if it's not up, if it's not running … consumers should not have to pay for what's not working, unless it comes back online," Kelly said.

-- Ivan Penn