What may become the first new nuclear power plant to be built in the U.S. in more than three decades was approved on Feb. 9 by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC). The agency used a new streamlined approval system in which nuclear reactor construction and operating licenses are combined and issued as one.
The NRC license gives a green light for two new 1,100 MW nuclear-power-generating facilities to be built by Southern Co. at its existing Vogtle nuclear power site near Waynesboro, Ga. The new units will be called Vogtle Units 3 and 4. Southern would use an AP1000 pressurized-water reactor design that was approved by NRC on Dec. 30, 2011. AP1000 uses passive safety features that would cool down the reactor after an accident without the need for electricity or human intervention, the agency says.
“This is an historic day,” said Marvin S. Fertel, the president and CEO of the Nuclear Energy Institute, in a news release from the industry trade association. “Today’s licensing action sounds a clarion call to the world that the U.S. 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.”
However, Kevin Kamps of Beyond Nuclear, a longtime nuclear power critic, noted, “An NRC license does not guarantee ultimate project success. Atomic reactors have been NRC licensed and then nearly, or even entirely, constructed, and still blocked from operating.”
He pointed to facilities in Midland, Mich., Shoreham, N.Y., and Marble Hill and Bailey, Ind., that never operated, at a cost of billions to ratepayers.
The license was issued after a 4-1 commission vote in which NRC Chairman Gregory B. Jaczko was the lone dissenter. Jaczko sought to include a specific license provision requiring Southern to implement any safety reforms that stem from NRC’s ongoing review of the failures that contributed to Japan’s Fukushima nuclear power plant incident, says an NRC spokesman. The other four commissioners did not agree, saying that, as a licensee, Southern would be required to comply with safety reforms that may result from the NRC review, thus making a specific license provision unnecessary.
Preliminary results of the NRC review of the Fukushima incident are expected next month, which marks the first anniversary of the incident.
The twin reactors are expected to cost $14 billion, and Southern has gained conditional approval from the Department of Energy for an $8.3 billion government-backed loan guarantee. The company has begun early site preparation and says one reactor is expected to be in operation by 2016, with the other coming on-line a year later.
Kamps noted that a loan guarantee default for Vogtle Units 3 and 4 would be 15 times worse than the Solyndra solar energy manufacturer default that cost U.S. taxpayers $550 million.
A more immediate problem for nuclear power advocates may be the plummeting price of natural gas and the record levels of gas supplies that make natural gas power plants a cheap and less risky alternative to nuclear power.