Progress Energy’s CEO William Johnson, who last month agreed to a merger deal with Duke Energy, on Thursday told attendees at a conference that proposed nuclear power plants in Florida and North Carolina would not be operational until at least 2020.

Progress has applied for permission to build new reactors at its Harris plant near Raleigh, N.C., as well as two reactors in Levy County, Fla.—a project whose costs have soared to more than $22 billion.

But the company had “continued to keep our options open to build these plants, even though the in-service timelines have shifted to beyond 2020,” Williams said at the Platts Nuclear Energy Conference in Bethesda, Md.

Johnson said that the merger would “make it more feasible to build new nuclear plants,” citing “a stronger balance sheet, lower cost of capital and reduced risk profile.” The proposed merger would create a combined company with 12 nuclear units at seven sites—the largest regulated nuclear fleet in the country.

In his speech, Johnson described the future of nuclear energy as “promising, complicated, and challenging.” He said: “To me, the central question is not if the United States embarks on a significant nuclear expansion program, but when and how.”

The executive said that nuclear energy was necessary: “Global energy use is expected to double by 2030, and U.S. electricity consumption is expected to grow by 30 percent by 2035,” he said. “Meanwhile, about one-third of the existing U.S. nuclear fleet will be at least 60 years old by 2035, so the decade of the 2030s could see a wave of nuclear plant retirements—at a time when many fossil-fueled plants will also already be retired. That points to a significant need to invest in new plants capable of producing emission-free electricity 24 hours a day.”

Four factors would drive the nation’s expansion of nuclear energy: excellent maintenance and operation of the nation’s current reactor fleet; financial strength of firms looking to build more plants; regional partnerships among joint owners; and political and regulatory support—“including timely and efficient recovery of financing costs during construction.”

 “There is positive momentum on all these fronts,” Johnson said. “But more work needs to be done, especially in putting the right cost-recovery mechanisms in place,” he said.

Sources: POWERnews, Progress Energy