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Other people's money



Outside the Orlando Utilities Commission's March 10 board meeting, seven placard-waving protesters (and two small children) quietly solicited honks from cars passing through the intersection of Orange Avenue and Anderson Street. "Orange you ready for Clean Energy?" read one; another put "Stop Corporate Greed!" in a red stop sign; and the most impressive portrayed a reviled Simpsons character next to a hazardous materials symbol and read, "Monty Burns, Buddy Dyer, Let the People Be the Deciders."

The occasional bursts of automotive approval and the sparse turnout for Orlando Peace and Justice's demonstration betrayed little of the gravity of what was going on inside. Orlando's publicly owned utility stood on the verge of signing off on an $800 million investment with Progress Energy (that's $4,000 for every OUC customer) to build a nuclear power plant in Levy County, Florida, all paid for by you (see "Nukes ahead," Jan. 15).

"Public officials in Orlando have no problem spending other people's money, whether it's the `downtown` venues or whether it's nuclear power," says organizer Matt De Vlieger. "They like putting people's money into things that who knows if they go forward or not?"

This protest was sparked by a February Orlando Sentinel report that outlined OUC's plans to buy into the Levy County twin-reactor plant. Last August, Florida's Public Service Commission greenlighted the Progress Energy project, advising them to partner up with other organizations to defray the $17 billion cost. Progress Energy found a willing partner in OUC; in December, OUC's board authorized its general manager to make a $3.7 million deposit toward the nuclear plant.

Despite the fact that OUC is publicly owned, in July 2007 it agreed to Progress Energy's confidentiality demands. That's why customers have heard nary a word about OUC's nuclear ambitions, even as the utility jacked its rates up 13.7 percent in March, with 1 percent of that going to the nuclear plant. In order to fully fund the project, that number will likely increase. In the Sentinel article, an OUC representative claimed that since there hadn't been a public outcry, people supported their plan.

The protesters disagree. They say public just doesn't know that they're paying for a venture from which they won't see any benefit for almost 10 years. Indeed, by the time they find out, the deal may already be done.

Despite earlier assurances from OUC officials that the nuclear plant wasn't on the March 10 agenda, it did come up. The utility's legal counsel pronounced the negotiations with Progress Energy "99 percent" done.

Later in the meeting, anti-nuke activist Nelson Betancourt compared the OUC board to the flailing Orlando-Orange County Expressway Authority, which is besieged by charges of corruption. Rhetoric aside, Betancourt made one key point: Progress Energy, a private company, has the interest of its shareholders in mind. OUC, a municipal utility, is supposed to serve its constituents.

"These two institutional cultures are diametrically opposed," he argued, requesting more public input into the process.

The board did not respond. The negotiations are supposed to come back before the OUC board in the next month. Meanwhile, two environmental groups have filed a petition with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to stop the construction of the reactors altogether.


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