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US licenses first nuclear reactors since 1978

Southern Company

The bottom of the containment vessel for a new reactor at the Vogtle plant in Georgia is seen under construction on Jan. 30. The Southern Company on Thursday got its license for the reactor and a second one going in at the existing nuclear site.

Updated at 6 p.m. ET: It's been 34 years -- and several nuclear accidents later -- but a divided federal panel on Thursday licensed a utility to build nuclear reactors in the U.S. for the first time since 1978.

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission's chairman, Gregory Jaczko, opposed licensing the two reactors at this time even though he had earlier praised their design.

"There is still more work" to be done to ensure that lessons learned from Japan's Fukushima disaster last year are engrained in the reactor design, he told his colleagues. "I cannot support this licensing as if Fukushima never happened. 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."

"There is no amnesia," responded Commissioner Kristine Svinick, speaking for the 4-1 majority and noting that the industry has been directed to adopt those lessons.

The licensing covers two reactors estimated to cost $14 billion that the Southern Company wants to add to its existing Vogtle nuclear plant in Georgia. Preliminary work has already begun and plans are for the first new reactor to be operating in 2016.

"The project is on track, and our targets related to cost and schedule are achievable," Southern CEO Thomas Fanning said in a statement.

Fanning declined to say why Southern would not agree to include language in the new license to complete potential Fukushima modifications before the reactors come online as Jaczko suggested.

"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," Reuters quoted Fanning as saying.

The Union of Concerned Scientists, a group that says it wants to improve nuclear safety not end nuclear power, sided with Jaczko. "The chairman has done the right thing," UCS senior scientist Edwin Lyman told msnbc.com. "It makes no sense to rush into constructing any new reactor before the implications of Fukushima are fully understood and incorporated into NRC regulations."

The Obama administration has stated its support for nuclear power and the industry believes a "nuclear renaissance" is in the making.

"This is a historic day," Nuclear Energy Institute President Marvin Fertel said in a statement. "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."

But cheap natural gas is making nuclear less competitive, and Fukushima undermined public confidence, similar to what happened following the Chernobyl disaster in 1986 and the Three Mile Island accident in 1979.

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission has taken steps to improve safety at the 104 reactors across the U.S. In particular, better defenses against earthquakes, floods and fires are in the works after Fukushima.

Next-gen nuclear plants could provide carbon-free energy, but the painfully slow process of approving better, safer reactors — not to mention real anxiety over meltdowns and waste — threaten to derail projects before they can be built.

Following the Sept. 11 attacks, the NRC also required nuclear operators to show that their reactors' shield buildings could withstand large airplane collisions.

The industry says improved reactor designs have significantly reduced plant sizes and the number of moving parts, thus reducing the risk of a disaster.

"The design provides enhanced safety margins through use of simplified, inherent, passive, or other innovative safety and security functions," NRC Chairman Gregory Jaczko said when the agency approved Southern's reactor design on Dec. 22.

US OKs reactor design

Southern's project in Georgia has received $8.3 billion in federal loan guarantees. Essentially, taxpayers are assuring private capital that their investment will be protected if the borrower, in this case a utility, defaults.

The nuclear reactor design used by the Southern Co. in the project approved Thursday is the same as that used at this plant being built in Sanmen, China.

Approval should encourage other projects in the pipeline. Utilities in Florida and the Carolinas are moving towards seeking approval.

Nuclear power provides about 20 percent of all electricity in the U.S.

Worldwide, more than 60 reactors are being built, including more than two dozen in China alone.

The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.

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