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Levy County Nuclear Plant Moves Forward

Over passionate objections from a small but vocal group of critics who gathered at the Capital to protest, the governor and Cabinet unanimously approved a key element in a proposal from Progress Energy for a new nuclear power plant in Levy County during its regular meeting Tuesday morning.

The Progress Energy plant, which still needs to be approved by federal regulators, would be the first in Florida since Florida Power & Light's St. Lucie 2 plant was approved in 1976. Progress is the state’s second largest public utility.

Critics pressed the governor and Cabinet on potential health risks of nuclear accidents, but Secretary of Environmental Protection Mike Sole, repeatedly told the elected officials their scope was limited to the location and environmental impact of the plant. Sole recommended the panel approve the plan.

If approved by the federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission, which is scheduled to weigh health concerns, the Levy County facility is expected to open in 2016 and complete its first fuel cycle by 2020.

Rep. Michelle Rehwinkel Vasilinda, D-Tallahassee, was among the critics calling on the governor and Cabinet to vote no on the nuclear plan. She appeared at the meeting after writing a letter to the panel Tuesday morning expressing concern about the focus on nuclear power as part of the state’s energy future.

“We need to give renewables -- truly clean renewables -- some room to breathe,” Vasilinda told the governor and Cabinet. “I’m concerned about the cost with regard to this nuclear power plant, I’m concerned about the time that it’s going to take to build this nuclear power plant, I’m concerned about the number of jobs, I’m concerned about the danger and I’m concerned about the legacy that we leave our children and our children’s children.”

Vasilinda was joined by other opponents like Lake Worth City Commissioner Cara Jennings. A member of the Florida Green Party, which has been granted the right to intervene against the plant before the federal nuclear commission, Jennings said her concerns about the proposed plant included the radiation it could expose to residents and the impact it could have on the area’s wetlands.

“Scientific research has clearly shown that the entire nuclear process - from minor to transportation, process, use and long-term storage - has negative consequences on public health,” Jennings said. “Even when running ‘safely,’ nuclear power plants release radiation. Radiation is odor-less, tasteless, invisible and deadly even in low doses.”

As they have since proposing the Levy County nuclear plant, Progress Energy sought to pre-empt criticisms like Jennings’ by telling the governor and Cabinet that 90 percent of the transmittal corridor for power from the proposed plant was in existing rights-of-way. Speaking first, company representatives outlined the project and it’s economic benefits. They did not respond directly to critics who spoke later.

Additionally, the St. Petersburg-based power company touted a plan announced last winter to close two of its oldest coal-fired power plants at the Crystal River Energy Complex in Citrus County once the new nuclear plant in Levy County is fully operational.

The company, which provides electricity to about 1.7 million people, has said closing the coal plants would reduce its annual carbon dioxide emissions by more than 5 million tons, which is the equivalent of the greenhouse emissions produced by 830,000 vehicles.

“At Progress Energy, we’re committed to securing Florida’s energy future and to doing it in an environmentally sound and cost-effective manner,” Progress Energy vice-president Jeffrey Lyash said.

But Jennings was not sold, telling the governor and Cabinet “replacing coal plants for nuclear plants is not a good solution for Florida.”

“Is this really the best we have to offer the people of our state?” she asked. “Go ahead Floridians, take your pick: lung cancer and air pollution from coal or cancer for your kids and a waste product so deadly we have nowhere to put it.”

Nearly 100 people spoke at one of the six hearings on the planned plant - with about half for and half against - before it was recommended for approval by DEP and OK’ed by the Florida Public Service Commission.

The Tuesday hearing similarly attracted a large crowd to the Capitol Cabinet room and a smattering of protesters to the courtyard. Jennings appeared to find a receptive ear in at least one member of the panel, Chief Financial Officer and Democratic gubernatorial candidate Alex Sink, who said she was “sympathetic” to the concerns raised by Jennings but reminded of Sole’s assertion that the governor and Cabinet could not vote based on those issues.

“The NRC has sole jurisdiction as it relates to the nuclear safety issues associated with this project,” Sole told the governor and Cabinet when the matter was taken up by the panel. “This is a provision of the supremacy clause of the United States Constitution. Their jurisdiction dealing with nuclear safety is basically from transportation all the way to final disposal. We are prevented from engaging in that discussion from a regulatory standpoint.”

There was less hesitation about supporting the plant from Attorney General and Sink’s likely Republican gubernatorial opponent Bill McCollum and the man they hope to replace: Crist.

“I’m impressed with the sincerity of the opponents here today…but I want to assure them and anyone else who is watching or listening that I’ve spent a long time in my life studying this issue myself,” said McCollum, who made the motion to approve the plan. “I’m a very strong advocate of alternative energy sources in our state…but what I’ve seen and studied to date, I don’t know any of the realistic studies that I’ve looked at that suggest that we can have a but a fraction of energy over the next few years no matter what we do.”

“I think this is the right thing to do,” added Crist, who seconded the motion. “All you have to do is look back to last summer and the price of gas at the pump to realize the sort of constricting nature of being so dependent on a limited array of energy sources, so I encourage solar development, wind development, nuclear and wave. It’s kind of like a personal financial portfolio. The best way to be solvent in the long run is to be diversified in your investment.”

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