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Four senators propose bill to modify nuke bill that has cost customers $1 billion

Barraged by a storm of bad press over the crippled Crystal River nuclear power plant, four Tampa-based state senators announced Thursday they will file legislation next week to require utility companies to surrender the profit they've collected from a nuclear cost recovery law if they abandon plans to build the nuclear plants.

"Times have changed,'' said Sen. John Legg, R-Lutz, the sponsor of the bill, noting that natural gas prices are a third of what they were when the  law was first enacted in 2006. "The time is now to evaluate the role of nuclear cost recovery."

The bill would require a utility company to return profits to taxpayers from the 2006 Nuclear Cost Recovery Act if it decides not to complete construction of a project. The bill will also sunset the act, estimated at two or three years, unless one of the companies has begun construction.

But the measure stops short of outright repeal of the act that opponents say has effectively transferred the risk of building the costly nuclear power plants from the company's shareholders to taxpayers.

The measure affects Progress Energy and Florida Power & Light, the state's largest utility companies, which together have collected $1 billion from customers for nuclear power plants that may never be built. The money has been used to pay for olanning and approval of a license from the federal government for the proposed nuclear plants and FPL has used the money to upgrade its existing nuclear plants, but neither has announced whether it will build new plants or not.

The senators said their plan is intended to provide a middle ground by not abandoning nuclear power, and giving the companies time to phase out their activities, while protecting consumers.

"What we can't continue is spending billions of dollars on rate of return and even profits without results,'' said Sen. Wilton Simpson, R-New Port Richey, another of the bill's sponsors. 

"If they take the chance and move forward in good faith, we'll let them recover their costs but why should they make a profit on their mistakes,'' said Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater, another of the sponsors.

Sen. Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg, said he hopes the debate will force the companies to answer the question of whether or not they will ever build the nuclear plants as intended under the law. "This legislation will take a prudent look at what nuclear cost recovery has done."

Latvala said he does not support repeal because, ''it won't pass... there’s a number of people here who voted for it.’’

Rep. Dwight Dudley, D-St. Petersburg, who got elected on a platform to repeal the act, said believes there is another reason the Senate plan stops short of repealing what he calls the “utility tax.”

“They are getting massive amounts of money,’’ he said.

By his count, the utility companies gave $1.5 million to legislative campaigns through the Republican Party of Florida in the last election and $500,000 to the Florida Democratic Party.

“So there’s a lot of money that’s making it into the hands of legislators and sadly I think it affects the quality of the decisions they’re making,” Dudley said.

Dudley has filed a bill to repeal the 2006 as has Reps. Michelle Rehwinkel Vasilinda, D-Tallahassee, and Mike Fasano, R-New Port Richey. The Senate bill would force utilities to refund the profits, not the cost of the project if the plants aren’t built. It also will limit the fixed interest rate they are guaranteed in the law of 8.5 percent on borrowing for construction, Latvala said.

Will the utilities agree? Latvala said he has asked them to offer an alternative but his offer has been met with silence.