U.S. Approves First Nuclear Plant Since 1978

For the first time since 1978, the United States just approved a nuclear plant. A group of southern utilities won the government approval for two, new, atomic energy reactors.

The reactors, said The LA Times, will be built at a cost of about $14 billion. A sign that many feel breaks the 30-year lull in nuclear plant construction. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) has been condemned for the move; however, nuclear experts say new projects will test new technology and government licensing meant to help mitigate the economic and safety issues that have impacted such projects in the past, said The LA Times.

The construction and operating license to expand Georgia’ nuclear plant was approved in a 4-1 NRC vote, wrote the LA Times. Approval comes just 11 months after the nuclear meltdown at Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi facility, which resulted in broad radioactive contamination, and just days after New York’s Indian Point nuclear plant was deemed the most dangerous in the United States, potentially putting drinking water supplies at risk to millions of people.

Although many fear the risks of nuclear power, others say that the new generation of nuclear reactors, coupled with more stringent U.S. regulations, make nuclear energy a viable and needed alternative to meet the country’s energy needs, said The LA Times.

The project, at Plant Vogtle in Georgia, is being handled by Southern Co., an operator of four southern utilities and three minority partners; the project has been funded, in part, by a huge federal loan guarantee and other incentives. “It is something we believe is a national imperative,” Southern Chief Executive Thomas Fanning, told The LA Times. Fanning also noted that the company is investing in coal, nuclear, gas, and renewable fuels, in line with Obama administration energy goals. “It is a big day in America,” he added.

According to Fanning, $4 billion has been invested in Plant Vogtle site preparation based on the expectation that the NRC would approve construction plans to increase reactors at the site two-fold. The company also ordered twin 1,100-megawatt reactors, known as AP1000s and built by Westinghouse Electric Co., said The LA Times. Officials at Westinghouse said they expect another license approval for its reactors in the near future, adding that about 20 more are in various planning stages; 14 will use its advanced new design, wrote The LA Times. Westinghouse added that most work will be conducted in the U.S. by 35,000 Westinghouse and suppliers’ workers.

Experts say not all of the licensing will go through on the planned projects, said The LA Times. Sam Walker, NRC’s historian, also noted that by 1985, some 28 nuclear plants that were under construction were canceled. Also, Shoreham, New York’s plant did complete construction, but has not, to date, generated any commercial electricity.

Meanwhile, Georgia’s planned reactor is allegedly equipped with technology and safety measures meant to avoid a meltdown such as the one at Fukushima, when the tsunami and massive earthquake knocked out power meant to cool the reactor. The Westinghouse system should endure a total blackout, shutting down the reactor with passive cooling systems, said company spokesman Vaughn Gilbert.

NRC Chairman Gregory B. Jaczko, who cast the only vote against approval, said he is not confident the license would oblige Southern Co. to utilize the safety improvements emerging from the continuing Fukushima accident review. Jaczko also said it would be “very difficult” to ensure Southern’s compliance following issuance of the license, said The LA Times.

Christopher Paine, a nuclear expert at the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), accused the NRC of having had “abdicated its responsibility,” relinquishing the power to impel Southern to ensure implementation of new safeguards created as part of the ongoing Fukushima review, wrote The LA Times.

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