WASHINGTON – A consortium of utilities in the South won government approval Thursday to construct two new reactors at an estimated cost of $14 billion, the strongest signal yet that the three-decade hiatus of nuclear plant construction is ending.
A handful of new projects will test whether new technology and streamlined government licensing can help the industry avoid the economic and safety disasters that have tainted its past, nuclear experts say, though critics condemned the action by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.
The approval of a combined construction and operating license by the NRC on a 4-1 vote came less than one year after the meltdown at the Fukushima Dai-Ichi nuclear plant in Japan left a wide swath of radioactive contamination.
Despite broad international concern that the safety risks of nuclear power are unacceptable even after a half-century of widespread use, proponents have argued successfully that a new generation of reactors and strong U.S. regulations justify making nuclear power part of the mix that can supply the U.S. economy.
The project is being led by Southern Co., which operates four electric utilities in the South, and three minority partners – all aided by a massive federal loan guarantee and other incentives.
“It is something we believe is a national imperative,” said Southern chief executive Tom Fanning, who described his company’s strategy of investing in coal, nuclear, gas and renewable fuels as consistent with the broad outlines of the Obama administration’s goals. “It is a big day in America.”
Fanning said the project has already invested $4 billion in site preparation at Plant Vogtle near Waynesboro, Ga., based on an expectation that the NRC would grant approval for construction. The company has ordered twin 1,100-megawatt reactors, known as AP-1000, built by Westinghouse Electric Co.
But whether the license approval represents a rebirth of an industry may take several years to become clear. Westinghouse officials said they expect another license approval for their reactors in coming weeks and noted that there are about 20 plants in various stages of planning, 14 of which would use the company’s new advanced reactor design. The company said the vast majority of the work will be done in the U.S., supporting 35,000 workers at the company and its suppliers. The new reactors would mainly be located in the South.
Not all of those projects are likely to move through licensing, experts say, and there have been repeated claims over the past decade that the U.S. nuclear power industry was on the brink of a renaissance. In fact, the industry is likely to move cautiously forward, if only for economic rather than safety reasons.
The heyday of nuclear plant construction almost bankrupted the electric utility industry and saddled ratepayers with high bills for decades. The last new nuclear construction license was issued 34 years ago, predating home computers and recognition of global warming. Throughout the prior two decades, the industry had bet big on nuclear power and then suffered a combination of legal, political and economic knockout punches.
By 1985, 28 nuclear plants under construction were canceled, according to Sam Walker, the regulatory commission’s historian.
Former NRC member Peter Bradford, now a law professor in Vermont, said the approval does not change the poor economics of nuclear power. What makes a difference in Georgia is that the state has ruled that customers are going to have to pay, he said.
The reactor is supposed to have adequate technology and safeguards to avoid a meltdown like the one that occurred at Fukushima, which was hit by a tsunami and lost electrical power that kept its reactors cool. The Westinghouse system is supposed to be able to endure a complete blackout and safely shut down the reactor with passive cooling systems, said Westinghouse spokesman Vaughn Gilbert.
Nonetheless, the NRC vote reflected continued concerns about nuclear safety. NRC Chairman Gregory B. Jaczko voted against the approval and said in an interview that he was not satisfied that the license would compel Southern to adopt safety improvements that result from the ongoing review of the Fukushima accident. Jaczko said it would be “very difficult” to get Southern’s compliance after the license was issued.