By Ayesha Rascoe
ROCKVILLE, Md. Feb 9 U.S. regulators
on Thursday approved plans to build the first new
nuclear power plant in more than 30 years in spite of objections
of the panel's chairman who cited safety concerns stemming from
Japan's 2011 Fukushima disaster.
The Nuclear Regulatory Commission voted 4-1 to allow
Atlanta-based Southern Co to build and operate two new
nuclear power reactors at its existing Vogtle nuclear power
plant in Georgia. The units will cost Southern and partners
about $14 billion and enter service as soon as 2016 and 2017.
NRC Chairman Gregory Jaczko cast an extraordinary dissenting
vote, citing the Fukushima nuclear disaster in Japan in March
2011 that spurred the NRC to review whether existing and new
U.S. reactors could withstand natural disasters like earthquakes
"I cannot support issuing this license as if Fukushima never
happened." Jaczko said. "I believe it requires some type of
binding commitment that the Fukushima enhancements that are
currently projected and currently planned to be made would be
made before the operation of the facility."
The Obama administration has offered Southern and its
partners $8.3 billion in federal loan guarantees as an
The new plant will use AP1000 reactors built by Westinghouse
Electric, a standardized design approved by the NRC in December
that will be the foundation for several other proposed nuclear
plants. Westinghouse is majority owned by Japanese multinational
SLOW NUCLEAR "RENAISSANCE"
There have been no nuclear power plants in the United States
since the partial meltdown of the reactor core of the Three Mile
Island plant in Pennsylvania in 1979, which caused construction
costs for nuclear plants to skyrocket and stopped dozens of
planned plants in their tracks.
Southern's Vogtle project is the first in a queue of permits
filed by U.S. utilities, like Scana Corp, that were once
predicted to usher in a "renaissance" of nuclear power. Nuclear
power accounts for about 20 percent of U.S. electric generation.
Interest in building new nuclear plants had risen about a
decade ago when natural gas prices were soaring and experts
thought the U.S. Congress would place first-ever limits on
emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases.
But the case for widespread U.S. nuclear plant construction
has eroded due to abundant natural gas supplies, slow
electricity demand in a weak U.S. economy, lack of financing and
uncertainty following the Fukushima disaster.
New nuclear plants are "more questionable because there are
economic factors right now which favor gas-fueled power plants
and the fact that the economy is only growing slowly means that
nationally the need for new generation is lower than people were
expecting in 2007," said Michael Golay, a professor at the
Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
A 1,000-megawatt natural gas plant takes a few years to
permit and build and costs up to $1 billion for the most
efficient, combined-cycle model. A similar-sized nuclear reactor
however could take five to 10 years to develop and build and
cost in excess of $5 billion.
Industry experts say building interest is centered in
Southeast states like Georgia, the Carolinas, Virginia, Alabama
and Florida, where land is plentiful and a population shift from
northern states has boosted electricity demand.