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US approves first new nuclear power plant since 1978

Regulatory authorities have approved plans to build the first new nuclear power generation plant on US soil in more than 30 years, despite objections of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission chairman, who cited safety concerns stemming from the Fukushima disaster.

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 $14bn and enter service as soon as 2016 and 2017.

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 LLC, 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 Toshiba Corp.

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.

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.

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 Valley Authority.

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