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Guest View: Billing Progress

Power companies are full of can-do folks who take immense pride in the quality of their work. When it comes to nuclear operations, that quality is crucial — because nuclear plants, when things go haywire, can present challenges on a formidable scale. Not surprisingly, the public is touchy about nuclear safety.

So there’s never a good time for an electric utility to have to face up to the consequences of slipshod performance at one of its nukes. But Raleigh-based Progress Energy — no doubt feeling some heat because of the planned merger with Duke Energy, in which many jobs will be lost — now has been handed what amounts to a $24 million bill for mishaps at its H.B. Robinson nuclear plant in Hartsville, S.C.

Billing the company, instead of letting it pass those costs along to its customers, represents a good decision by the N.C. Utilities Commission.

An electric utility is entitled to recover fuel costs from ratepayers, and if those costs rise unexpectedly, the utility will seek a rate adjustment. But in the Robinson case, the commission denied a recovery, placing responsibility for added expenses on the company itself.

The Robinson plant supplies power in both Carolinas. It was offline during 2010 for almost six months. To make up for the missing generation, Progress turned to plants that are more expensive to operate and also had to buy power from other utilities. That’s how the $24 million tab was figured.

The N&O’s John Murawski reports that this was only the fourth time in North Carolina history that a utility company wasn’t permitted to recover fuel and other related costs because of a power plant’s substandard performance. Two of those episodes have involved the Robinson plant. During a 12-month period, according to Murawski, the plant experienced four unplanned shutdowns, two electrical fires and a power failure. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission cited it for various rules violations and put it on a national watch list — not a good place to be.

About a dozen of the plant’s top employees were removed because of the troubles. Accountability of course must be maintained when the performance of nuclear plants is at stake. The Utilities Commission, by requiring Progress to eat those $24 million in costs, reinforces that principle.

— from The News & Observer of Raleigh

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