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Environment

NRC head sees "nuclear renaissance"

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The chairman of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission on Tuesday said a long-touted “nuclear renaissance” has arrived after a consortium of utilities filed an application to build a new nuclear power plant in Alabama.

Nuclear reactor operators man the control room at Browns Ferry Nuclear Plant in Athens, Alabama, June 21, 2007. The chairman of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission on Tuesday said a long-touted "nuclear renaissance" has arrived after a consortium of utilities filed an application to build a new nuclear power plant in Alabama. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque

A consortium of 10 utilities called NuStart that includes the Tennessee Valley Authority -- the biggest government-owned utility -- filed an application to construct and operate two new nuclear power reactors at an existing TVA site in Alabama.

NuStart follows merchant plant builder NRG Energy, which last month broke a 30-year industry fast in new construction applications when it asked the NRC for permission to build two new reactors in Texas.

TVA deferred completion of two partially built reactors at its Bellefonte site in 1988, 14 years after the NRC issued construction permits.

With three more new plant applications expected to be filed at the NRC this year and 10-12 applications in the pipeline for 2008, “I think the nuclear renaissance is here,” NRC Chairman Dale Klein told reporters.

The NRC has said it expects U.S. companies to file applications for about 30 new combined construction and operating licenses in coming months.

However, Klein said if Congress fails to pass a 2008 federal budget and decides to hold funding at 2007 levels through a continuing resolution, it could have a “devastating” impact on his agency’s ability to weigh new applications.

“It would slow them down significantly and some by one or two years,” Klein said.

If granted by the NRC, the licenses would allow companies to construct and operate a nuclear plant in one fell swoop, minimizing possible regulatory delays.

The last application for new nuclear power plants had been filed in 1977, and several planned plants were canceled after the 1979 Three Mile Island accident in Pennsylvania that sparked a backlash against the technology.

But obtaining a plant license -- which costs about $50 million -- is much cheaper than buying the massive quantities of steel, concrete and reactor equipment that puts the cost of building a new commercial-scale plant at about $5 billion.

Despite the high cost, “I believe that dirt will be turned” and many of the planned plants will actually get built, Klein said.

Dominion Resources, Duke Energy and Southern Co are among the utilities in the process of seeking plant licenses, according to the NRC.

The regulator is expected to take about three years to process applications, and construction could take four more years, putting the first new U.S. reactors online sometime around 2014-2016, Klein said.

Currently, 104 nuclear units are in operation in the United States, contributing about 20 percent of the nation’s power.

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