Politics Pushes Back Against Nuclear Cost Overruns: The Southern Company (SO), NextEra Energy, Inc. (NEE), Duke Energy Corp (DUK)

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Politicians who supported the construction of new nuclear reactors in their home states are in meltdown mode. Instead of thermal cooling towers, the only thing soaring over the skylines are budgets. The Southern Company (NYSE:SO) announced at the end of February that it needed $737 million more than originally expected for the construction of its two new reactors at Plant Vogtle in Georgia. The project will now cost $15.15 billion, if, that is, the price tag isn’t revised upwards again.

The cost overruns seem to be the last straw for Georgia and Florida — two states betting big on a nuclear renaissance — as the process for collecting project funds has also come under fire. One infuriated politician wants to penalize Southern for going over budget, but the angry mob is focusing its anger on Progress Energy, Inc. (NYSE:PGN) and Duke Energy Corp (NYSE:DUK). Regulators aren’t taking it easy on the companies and their subsidiaries, either.

NextEra Energy, Inc. (NYSE:NEE)You won’t like him when he’s angry
The Florida Public Service Commission aired some dirty laundry from the now merged companies by stating that they collected nearly $819 million from their customers over the past several years for two nuclear projects: expanding the Crystal River facility and building an entirely new plant in Levy County. While there is nothing wrong with collecting funds from ratepayers for such expenditures, neither project has gained regulatory approval. In fact, the Crystal River project was scrapped after the facility was damaged beyond repair during the expansion.

Even worse, the company maintains that the first reactor at Levy won’t be operable until 2024 at the earliest. Yikes. I’ll take a guess and say that none of the funds will be returned to customers if the application for the Levy County reactors fails to impress the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, or NRC. Regional politicians are right to be concerned.

Customer relief?
Politicians from both sides of the aisle are proposing bills that would prohibit or significantly limit the amount of funds utilities are allowed to collect pre-construction. The bills also want to ensure that companies don’t profit from nuclear plants that never leave blueprint canisters. Whether companies will be required to pay a fine to the state or give credits to customers remains to be determined.

Do customers reserve the right to be upset? Absolutely. (I don’t even live in Florida and I cringed when I heard about it.) However, I believe basing your opinion of nuclear energy on the high costs of construction alone is a bit unreasonable. I recently explained that position in more detail, showing that the low cost of fuel and maintenance actually makes atomic energy cheaper than other energy sources in the long term. There’s a reason the NRC has pending applications for 28 new reactors to review — four more than the total submissions facing the Department of Energy for LNG export terminals.

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