* NRC Chairman says license should integrate Fukushima
* Industry officials see 5 nuclear units online by 2020
* Nuclear "renaissance" has been slow to materialize
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, despite
objections of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission chairman, who
cited safety concerns stemming from Japan's 2011 Fukushima
The NRC 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.
The approval was cold comfort for nuclear industry officials
who have touted a "renaissance" that has failed to materialize,
undercut by high costs and the cheapest natural gas prices in
about a decade.
No nuclear power plants have been licensed in the United
States since the partial meltdown of the reactor core of the
Three Mile Island plant in Pennsylvania in 1979. After the
accident, the NRC adopted more stringent safety standards, which
caused construction costs for nuclear plants to skyrocket and
stopped dozens of planned plants in their tracks.
Further clouding future prospects, 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 and floods.
"I cannot support issuing this license as if Fukushima never
happened." said Jaczko, who has close ties to congressional
Democrats. "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."
Supporters of nuclear power saw Jaczko's dissent as another
sign of dysfunction at the top of the NRC, where in-fighting
among members has been the subject of Congressional hearings
where one Democratic commissioner called Jaczko abusive.
"The chairman just voted against the first new nuclear
reactors in 30 years," said Ed Batts, a partner at law firm DLA
Piper. "That's just not the way that confidence is inspired in
the average American and thus does not seem like the best
way for nuclear regulation."
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
Thomas Fanning, Southern Co.'s chief executive Officer,
called the license a "monumental accomplishment" and said the
new Vogtle plants would provide cheap, reliable power to
Southeast residents for years to come.
"This has been a thorough, thoughtful and complete process,"
Fanning said. "Recall that four other commissioners saw the same
facts and voted" to issue the license.
However, Rep. Edward Markey of Massachusetts, a Democratic
critic of the nuclear industry, said the agency "abdicated its
duty to protect public health and safety, just to make
construction faster and cheaper for the nuclear industry."
Fanning declined to say why Southern would not agree to
include language in the new license to complete potential
Fukushima modifications before the Vogtle reactors come online
as Jaczko suggested.
"There will be issues (from the Fukushima review) that apply
to the U.S. nuclear fleet, but they apply much more closely to
the current fleet, not this newest generation of nuclear
technology," Fanning said.
The Obama administration has offered Southern and its
partners $8.3 billion in federal loan guarantees as an
incentive. Fanning said he expects the U.S. Energy Department to
finalize the loan in the second quarter of 2012.
Southern's Vogtle project is the first in a queue of permits
filed by U.S. utilities, like Scana Corp. These were
once expected to usher in a "renaissance" of nuclear power,
which now accounts for about 20 percent of U.S. electric
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 begin to place limits on
emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases.
Between the fall of 2007 and the summer of 2009, 13
companies applied for construction and operating licenses to
build 25 new reactors, including units of Southern, Scana Corp
, Exelon, Duke Energy, NRG Energy
, Progress Energy, Dominion Resources,
NextEra Energy and Energy Future Holdings.
But the case for widespread U.S. nuclear plant construction
has eroded due to abundant natural gas supplies, slow
electricity demand growth in a weak U.S. economy, lack of
financing and uncertainty following the Fukushima disaster.
Nuclear industry officials now say they expect just five new
reactors to enter service by 2020 -- Southern's two Vogtle
reactors, two at Summer in South Carolina and one at Watts Bar
in Tennessee, to be built by the federally owned Tennessee
Earlier this week, TVA said the Watts Bar unit was behind
schedule and that costs would "significantly exceed" a previous
building cost estimate of $2.5 billion.
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 more than $5 billion.
Industry experts say building interest is centered in
Southeast states like Georgia, the Carolinas, Virginia, Alabama
and Florida, where traditional utility regulation offers
companies the best chance to make a profit on the sizable
investment needed to develop new reactors.
Southern Co. stock closed at $44.68 per share, nearly
unchanged from the previous day.