WASHINGTON - The nation's first new nuclear power plant in a generation won approval Thursday as federal regulators voted to grant a license for two new reactors at a site in eastern Georgia.
Atlanta-based Southern Co. hopes to begin operating the $14 billion reactors at its Vogtle site south of Augusta as soon as 2016. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission approved the company's plans on a 4-1 vote.
The NRC last approved construction of a nuclear plant in 1978, a year before a partial meltdown of the Three Mile Island nuclear plant in Pennsylvania. After that accident, fears of a radiation release were heightened and new reactor orders were brought nearly to a halt.
The planned reactors, along with two others in South Carolina expected to win approval in coming months, are the remnants of a once-anticipated building boom that the power industry dubbed the "nuclear renaissance."
The head of an industry lobbying group said the Vogtle project could be the start of a smaller renaissance that expands nuclear power in the United States.
"This is a historic day," said Marvin Fertel, president and CEO of the Nuclear Energy Institute. He said the NRC vote "sounds a clarion call to the world that the United States recognizes the importance of expanding nuclear energy as a key component of a low-carbon energy future that is central to job creation, diversity of electricity supply and energy security."
President Obama and other proponents say greater use of nuclear power could cut the nation's reliance on fossil fuels and create energy without producing emissions blamed for global warming. The Obama administration has offered the Vogtle project $8.3 billion in federal loan guarantees as part of its pledge to expand nuclear power.
More than two dozen nuclear reactors have been proposed in recent years, but experts now say it is likely that only five or six will be completed by the end of the decade.
The once-expected nuclear power boom has been plagued by a series of problems, from the prolonged economic downturn to the sharp drop in the price of natural gas and the March 2011 nuclear disaster in Japan.
"It's clear the nuclear renaissance has been significantly slowed," said Edwin Lyman of the Union of Concerned Scientists, a watchdog group. Lyman blamed what he called "inappropriate optimism" about nuclear power that ignores the huge start-up costs and safety risks.
The Vogtle project is considered by many observers to be a major test of whether the industry can build nuclear plants without the delays and cost overruns that plagued earlier rounds of building.
Close on the project's heels is South Carolina Electric & Gas Co., which is seeking permission to build two reactors at an existing plant in Jenkinsville, S.C. In addition, construction of a second reactor at the Watts Bar nuclear plant in Tennessee is under way after years of delay.
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The approval "sounds a clarion call ... that the United States recognizes the importance of expanding nuclear energy."
Marvin Fertel, president and CEO of the Nuclear Energy Institute