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Landmark Approval for New U.S. Nuclear Reactors

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For the first time in 34 years, the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission cleared the way for licensing of new nuclear reactors in the United States.

It’s not the first step for the addition to the Vogtle site outside of Augusta, Georgia, which four years ago began what was supposed to be a streamlined approval process. Nor is it the last step—Southern Company may still face lawsuits aimed at blocking the $14 billion project, and must overcome the industry’s history of construction delays and cost overruns.

But the 4-1 vote is a major milestone: it’s the NRC’s first license approval since 1978, the year the Unit 2 on Three Mile Island in Pennsylvania was licensed. Just a year later, in March 1979, that plant was the site of the worst nuclear reactor accident in U.S. history. Although no injuries resulted from the accident, it brought the  development of new nuclear generation to a halt in the United States.

Environmental groups and the NRC’s own chairman, Gregory Jaczko, objected to the licensing. Jaczko said he voted against the approval because he wanted Southern to make a clear commitment to safety changes prompted by Japan’s March 2011 nuclear disaster.

“I cannot support this licensing as if Fukushima never happened,” Jaczko said, according to MSNBC. “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 Fukushima crisis was caused by the massive March 11 earthquake and tsunami that devastated the east coast of Japan, flooding the coastal plant and putting its crucial back-up cooling system out of commission. The decay heat from the nuclear fuel resulted in a partial meltdown, with hydrogen build-up that caused outer containment buildings to explode and release of radiation to the surrounding area. Clean-up of the disaster will continue for years, as will the reverberations for the nuclear industry around the world.

“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,” said Southern CEO Thomas Fanning, according to Reuters.

Southern and its subsidiary, Georgia Power, are “committed to bringing these units online to deliver clean, safe and reliable energy to our customers,” Fanning said. “The project is on track, and our targets related to cost and schedule are achievable.”

The Georgia reactors are expected to start operating in 2016 or 2017, and the project could bring 4,000 to 5,000 new jobs, reported USA Today.

Combined with the two reactors already in operation at Vogtle, the plant will become the largest nuclear power complex in the United States, according to The New York Times. Despite nuclear energy’s setbacks over the years in the United States, the nation still leads the world in the amount of nuclear power generated, providing about 20 percent of U.S. electricity.

Vogtle’s reactors will feature a new design, the Westinghouse AP1000. The electric pressurized-water reactor “includes passive safety features that would cool down the reactor after an accident without the need for electricity or human intervention,” the NRC said in its statement.

Even as the Vogtle project moves ahead, several environmental groups plan to challenge it in federal court, saying the approval was rushed, USA Today reported. “In a very literal sense, the rubble has not cooled in Japan, and the NRC has granted a license for a new, unproven reactor design here in the United States,” Stephen Smith, executive director for the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy, told the newspaper.

(Interactive Map: The Global Electricity Mix)