Progress Energy plans nuclear power plant north of Tampa

click to enlarge A rendition of the proposed nuclear power plants in Levy County. - Courtesy Of Progress Energy
Courtesy Of Progress Energy
A rendition of the proposed nuclear power plants in Levy County.

Florida doesn't get much more rural than Levy County.

Situated 90 miles north of Tampa, between the Gulf of Mexico and Ocala, the area boasts no major cities or interstates. The entire county's population is less than Dunedin's. Much of the area is dotted with ranches and trailer parks. Unemployment runs high. Republican politicians run unopposed.

It's the perfect place to propose a nuclear power plant. And last year, Progress Energy did just that.

It bought a 3,100-acre parcel of undeveloped land in southern Levy and submitted applications to federal and state officials to construct two nuclear reactors. If approved, the nuclear plant would be the first built in more than 30 years. Progress Energy hopes to have it online in 2016.

Despite the distance, the plant will affect Tampa Bay residents in at least one aspect: our wallets. Starting next spring, we'll fund the $17 billion project with a 25-percent rate hike in our Progress Energy electricity bills.

You can't see Progress Energy's proposed nuclear plant site from the road. Trees block the view from every side. According to spokeswoman Jessica Lambert, Progress Energy bought 3,100 acres to buffer the plant from the rest of the county.

"We're building in the center of that property," she says. "Nobody will be able to see the cooling towers."

The closest population center is Inglis, a tiny town consisting of little more than a few restaurants, a Dollar General and five churches. The town's only claim to fame is a 2001 proclamation banning Satan from city limits.

In a small fishing town like Inglis, the bait shop is like the barbershop. Every day, the white-haired owner of Hook-Line and Sinker Bait Shop, Jerry Homa, talks with locals about the weather, which fish are biting and the future.

"I think most people support it," he says about the nuclear plant. "Except the older people who have been here 30 or 40 years. They don't want the change. They're afraid of change."

Homa cautiously supports the nuclear plant, too. Area jobs are scarce, he points out. Besides, the warm water discharge from the plant will help fishing in the wintertime.

Down the road at the town's gas station, a clerk named Lindy sums up her neighbors' opinions in three words: "People need work."

If approved, Progress Energy estimates up to 3,000 people will work on the plant's construction. Another 2,000 positions may be created through auxiliary jobs like new housing and restaurants. After construction, Progress Energy will employ 800-900 workers.

But nobody mentions many of those jobs will require specialized training and college degrees. Only 10 percent of Levy County residents hold a four-year degree.

Contractor Robert Smith knows the plan could help his business, but he's still against it. Smith and his wife live a mile south of the proposed plant. If Progress Energy constructs it, they'll be able to see nuclear reactors from their porch.

"It's better than having a Wal-Mart or a housing project in our backyard," he says, "but it's still pretty freaky."

Last week, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission came to town. The federal body responsible for issuing nuclear plant licenses held two public meetings on the proposed plant. As NRC environmental impact manager Doug Bruner told a crowd, they're conducting an environmental impact study, and "you know your environment best."

NRC officials invited the public to a National Guard armory in Crystal River that normally hosts pro-wrestling matches. But on this afternoon, a different kind of Battle Royal took place between nuclear supporters and detractors, the Chamber of Commerce types who have benefited financially from Progress Energy and the flannel-wearing older residents worried about terrorist attacks and Three Mile Island.

"I remember these power plants going up 35 years ago," said Levy County native Jeff Edison, superintendent of Levy County Schools. "These plants offer a lot of economic and job opportunities for the kids of Levy County."

Thomas Epps, an older man in a Mr. Roger's sweater, made a point to say he drove a Toyota Prius.

"Some things last forever," he said. "Like nuclear waste."

During a second public meeting later in the evening, the metal chairs inside the Armory filled up again. This time, there were no Progress Energy folks and a lot more environmental activists, most of whom drove from Hillsborough and Pinellas counties.

"How many people would like to live next to a nuclear power plant?" asks one woman with the Florida Green Party.

Several people raise their hands. The woman continues her comments, annoyed.

Later, a nearby ranch owner launches into a five-minute long speech on the virtues of Progress Energy. Suddenly, the lights go out, plunging the room into darkness.

"Does Progress Energy provide the electricity here?" asks an out-of-town activist.

The local next to her responds dryly, "Yup."

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