Tuesday, May 07, 2013

Sensible Nuclear Outcomes in Florida and India

The processes may have been a little sloppy, but if the outcomes are good, so be it.

First, in Florida:

The Florida Supreme Court rejected on Thursday the challenge to a controversial law that allows electric utilities to collect money from their customers for nuclear-power plants that won't be built for years — if ever.

The unanimous ruling, in a challenge filed by the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy, found that the 2006 law did not violate the Florida Constitution by shifting too much decision-making power to the state Public Service Commission. Also, it upheld PSC decisions that allowed Florida Power & Light and what was then known as Progress Energy Florida to collect $282 million in nuclear-project charges from their customers in 2012 alone.

Reporter Jim Saunders sounds a little unhappy with the court ruling himself, doesn’t he? But so what if He gets the facts right. This is another case where anti-nuclear types took a grain of possibility (that the state breached the constitution by ceding authority to the Public Service Commission) and built it into a boulder. Unfortunately, it’s still a grain. The court also said that since the legislature wrote the law, it is up to that body to determine the PSC’s authority, not the courts.

That’s one good Florida outcome. At the same time, the legislature contemplated repealing the bill, but instead made a couple of minor adjustments:

In the short term, Duke Energy can keep collecting the "advance fee" money already approved for the Levy County nuclear plant.

But, in the future, it will get a little harder for the utility to charge customers more.

The Florida Senate with a 40-0 vote Thursday gave final approval to a bill that adds tougher guidelines for use of the advance fee. The bill, SB 1472, now goes to the governor.

Those final guidelines:

In particular, the bill lawmakers passed states that if a utility cannot demonstrate that it plans to complete the construction of the nuclear plant, it will no longer be allowed to collect money. The utility has 10 years after it gets its federal license to begin construction or lose access to the fee.

And it must prove the plant is both economically "feasible" and "reasonable" to continue moving forward with the projects. The existing law required only that the plants be "feasible."

I guess that qualifies as a “little harder.” This is unalloyed good news for Florida Gas & Light and Progress Energy Florida (now Duke Energy). And the Southern Alliance?

"Today is kind of a mixed day for us," said Stephen Smith, executive director of the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy[.]

Ah well. They’ll try another way another day. Why is cost recovery important? It allows expensive projects to proceed by lowering interest rates on needed loans (because the collected money reduces risk to a lender). In the end, that savings is passed along to ratepayers.

(To be fair, Duke is not happy with the legislative result, either.

Additionally, our position on (the legislation) has not changed," Sterling Ivey, a Duke spokesman, said. "We remain opposed to the bill, even as amended and passed. The process in current law is working and additional legislation or state requirements are not needed, which was confirmed today by the Florida Supreme Court."

It was working fine as is, though the outcome this time might have been much worse. Ivey is right, though; the better approach would have been to leave the original legislation alone.)

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In India, the seemingly endless haggling to get the Kudankulum facility up and running. Though the court case is quite different, it also involves litigating fear, not actual harm:

Opponents of a nuclear reactor in the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu received a setback Monday when the Supreme Court rejected a petition to halt the commissioning of the plant over safety concerns.

But the protest groups are holding out hope that the judgment, which hasn’t yet been published in full, will enable them to continue their campaign against the Kudankulum Nuclear Power Plant.

Protesters had asked the Supreme Court to close the plant until extra safety measures had been put in place, saying that its technology was out of date and it would jeopardize the lives and livelihoods of thousands of people living in its vicinity.

But the court dismissed the petition and cleared the reactor for operation, more than two decades since it was first conceived in an Indo-Russian pact in 1988. The court said sufficient safeguards were in place at Kudankulam and that it was in the national interest to have the plant operational.

I’ve followed this case a bit and can only say that from an American perspective, it was built on a foundation of sand and powered by  fear of an Indian Fukushima Daiichi. Also from an American perspectives, bits like this are puzzling:

“Ideally we wanted them to stop the commissioning but they have gone ahead with a conditional order,” said G. Sunderrajan, an environmentalist who brought the petition to the Supreme Court in September 2012.

“Before commissioning, the Nuclear Power Corporation of India needs to satisfy [for] the court about 17 safety areas,” Mr. Sunderrajan said, adding that there he’s confident that campaigners would get another chance in court. “There is always a tab to pull the decision back,” he said. It wasn’t immediately clear what the 17 safety conditions were or how they would be policed.

If there are 17 safety conditions, one would expect them to be known to someone. I wonder if Sunderrajan got the number wrong or the Wall street Journal bloggers (Joanna Sugden and Aditi Malhotra)  just threw their hands up and went with it. I expect there are many more safety issues than seventeen and that the utility worked through them. Also, 17 or no, it appears the court doesn’t need them satisfied or is satisfied.

The problem with filing a court case charging that nuclear energy facilities are unsafe is that they are never inherently unsafe. What you end up litigating are your own fears, which are tough to set down in a fact set.

Bottom line: nuclear energy proceeds in India.

4 comments:

Ernest said...

News flash for Wall Street Journal bloggers!! The Supreme Court of India has a website!! They post all their decisions in English!! You can read them for free!!

Oh well I guess a few clicks is too much effort. After all it's only setting precedent for the energy future of one of the biggest nations on Earth.

Joris van Dorp said...

I think one the things the protesters wanted is a 'credible' 25 km radius evacuation drill to be performed prior to commissioning the plant. There are about 950.000 people living within 32 km, so an estimate for the number living within 25 km might be 580.000 people.

Is it legitimate to demand such a drill prior to allowing commissioning of the plant?

If such a drill would cause the same amount of lives lost as at Fukushima (i.e. about 500 deaths among 100.000 people evacuated due to radiation fears, right?), then doing this drill for Kundankulam might cost more than 2500 people their lives.

Of course, such a drill would not involve actual panic so the number of deaths would be smaller, but on the other hand, the population around Kundankulam concerns a large number of poor people who are perhaps less resistent to the stress of evacuation, even if it is only a drill.

Anonymous said...

I wish just once enviromentalists could engage in a resonable cost/benefit discussion on their different stances. For example look at India and the troubles they have had getting Kudankulam operational. Cheap energy is the lifeblood on an economy and stopping power plants from being built has the same effect on an economy as stopping a blood vessel has on a human body. People like to imply that by stopping power plants they are only hurting huge corporations, but the fact of the matter is that they are impeeding economic development. In a place like India that doesn't just mean that people have to do without an iPhone 5, it means millions more people will stay in poverty and die of malnutrition and easily treatable diseases.

Before the industrial revoluton the average life expectancy was decades less than it is now. The modern industrial world fueled by coal and oil extended the average life expectancy by decades. Nuclear is just the next step in that same evolution. It can continue to improve human life expectancy and quality of life even further by reducing the bad effects of fossil fuels like air polution and potential catastrophic climate change. I fear the vast opposition we see these days to almost all energy development is something which is costing this world millions of lives every year. Enviromentalists may well have good intentions, but they are having a disasterous effect on economy growth in regions such as the US, Europe and Japan where they hold considerable political power.

Anonymous said...

Life expectancy in the modern world has risen mainly as a result of four things: safe and abundant water supply, safe and abundant food, sanitation, and labor-saving technology. Those things have come about in part as a result of the availability of electricity on a broad scale at reasonable cost and reliability. Those things are as true today in the third world as they were for the developed nations in the early part of the last century. Those who oppose the deployment of electrical infrastructure do no favor to those trapped in poverty with little or no hope of improving their station in life.