The U.S. nuclear-power industry has had its growth stunted since March 28, 1979, when a cooling malfunction caused part of the core to melt at the Three Mile Island plant, leading to the release of radioactive gases around Harrisburg, Pa.
The decades-long freeze on construction of nuclear reactors thawed suddenly on Thursday, when the Nuclear Regulatory Commission voted 4-1 to approve a license for two new reactors at Southern Company’s Vogtle plant in Georgia.
“This is a historic day,” said Marvin Fertel, president of the Nuclear Energy Institute, the industry’s main trade group. “Today’s licensing action sounds a clarion call to the world that the United States recognizes the importance of expanding nuclear energy as a key component of a low-carbon energy future that is central to job creation, diversity of electricity supply, and energy security,” he said in a statement.
Southern's executives also lauded the decision. “This is a significant day in America,” said the utility’s president and CEO, Thomas Fanning. “Today we celebrate an achievement for Southern Company, but more importantly, for our customers and our nation.
“These two new units will set the standard for safety and efficiency in the nuclear industry in America today,” he added. Fanning called for a national energy policy that goes along with the all-of-the-above approach that President Obama touted in his State of the Union address.
The NRC hadn’t issued a license for a new reactor since 1978, just a year before the Three Mile Island accident. The 1978 approval authorized construction of a reactor for the Shearon Harris plant in North Carolina.
NRC Chairman Gregory Jaczko was the only dissenting vote on the Southern license. Jaczko said he is “not supportive” of approving the license without a condition that the reactors face more review in light of last year’s Fukushima nuclear accident in Japan.
Other commissioners argued that the crisis in Japan, triggered by an earthquake and tsunami, should not push back a license approval here.
“I respectfully disagree with the chairman’s dissenting view,” said Commissioner George Apostolakis. “This commission is not ignoring Fukushima.”
“The NRC’s consideration of and response to these events is established and well under way,” Commissioner Kristine Svinicki added.
A federal task force looked into the Fukushima disaster, issuing a series of safety recommendations for the 104 U.S. nuclear plants. The NRC's review of the recommended safety enhancements and rules is still under way.
Southern’s CEO added his own assurances about the process in a conference call after the NRC meeting. “This has been a thorough, thoughtful and complete process,” Fanning said. “The events of Fukushima are taken into account every day.”
Now that the NRC has approved the license, the next steps will be issuance of a construction and operating permit to Southern Nuclear, a subsidiary of Southern Company. The company then will be able to take advantage of its $8.3 billion conditional loan guarantee from the Energy Department to build the reactors; DOE has been waiting for the NRC approval for two years now.
A group of nine environmental and antinuclear groups on Wednesday said that they plan to file a federal lawsuit challenging the decision under the National Environmental Policy Act, noting that the commission has not yet completed its review of lessons learned from the disaster at Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi plant.