(Reuters) - Some U.S. lawmakers and energy experts are urging federal regulators to delay decisions on nuclear reactor designs and new plant construction permits in the wake of the nuclear power crisis in earthquake-ravaged Japan.
The chairman of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, Gregory Jaczko, has said the agency will vote by late summer or early autumn on whether to approve Toshiba Corp unit Westinghouse's AP1000 nuclear reactor design.
The reactor would be used by Southern Co and SCANA Corp for the combined four nuclear power reactors the companies plan to build, which also need final NRC approval.
Jaczko has said after the decision on the AP1000 design, the NRC will then most likely vote in the fourth quarter on construction licenses for the first new U.S. nuclear power reactors in three decades.
It is unclear whether the reactor problems in Japan -- where engineers raced to prevent a meltdown at a stricken nuclear plant on Tuesday following last week's earthquake -- will delay the NRC's timetable for issuing decisions.
Asked about that possibility, an agency spokesman said: "As detailed scientific information becomes available from Japan, we'll fully review that information to determine any implications on both operating reactors and applications for new reactors in the United States."
Jaczko told reporters at a White House briefing there was no need for concern about U.S. nuclear power. "Right now, we continue to believe that nuclear power plants in this country operate safely and securely," he said.
Following are U.S. nuclear power issues that could be affected by Japan's crisis.
* Westinghouse's AP1000 reactor. The NRC is expected to decide whether to approve the AP1000 in late summer or early autumn. The design is seen as safer than the problem reactors in Japan, because water to cool the core in the AP1000 comes above the reactor and flows down. The Japanese reactors pipe water in from below and pump it up to cool the core. In the event a coolant pipe breaks, the AP1000 is designed to shut down safely without relying on electricity, diesel generators or pumps. Instead, the reactor relies on gravity to circulate water and compressed gas to keep the core from overheating.
* Construction licenses. Southern and SCANA want to use the AP1000 design to build two reactors each. The NRC is expected to vote on construction licenses for the two projects in the fourth quarter. Southern's two reactors will be built at its Vogtle plant in Georgia, and come online in 2016 and 2017. SCANA's two reactors would be located at its Summer nuclear station in South Carolina and be running in 2016 and 2019.
* Nuclear loan guarantees. Congress has given the Energy Department the authority to provide $18.5 billion in loan guarantees to help finance the new nuclear plants. The nuclear industry has many supporters in Congress, but the crisis in Japan may turn more lawmakers against raising the guarantees.
Under the program, the federal government would step in and repay up to 80 percent of the loan if a plant's operator defaulted. The Obama administration wants Congress to approve another $36 billion in nuclear loan guarantee authority. The $54.5 billion program could help build up to a dozen reactors.
So far, the Energy Department has conditionally awarded only one loan guarantee -- an $8.3 billion package to Southern for the two reactors at its Vogtle site.