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Monday 13 February 2012

First new nuclear reactors OK'd in over 30 years

First new nuclear reactors OK'd in over 30 years
By Steve Hargreaves @CNNMoney February 9, 2012: 2:50 PM ET

NEW YORK (CNNMoney) -- The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission approved
licenses to build two new nuclear reactors Thursday, the first
authorized in over 30 years.

The reactors are being built in Georgia by a consortium of utilities
led by Southern Co. (SO, Fortune 500) They will be sited at the Vogtle
nuclear power plant complex, about 170 miles east of Atlanta. The
plant already houses two older reactors.
The AP 1000
An artist rendering of the AP 1000

"Today marks an advancement in our nation's energy policy," Southern
Company chief executive Thomas Fanning said at a press conference
after the approval. "The project is on track, and our targets related
to cost and schedule are achievable."

The 5-member NRC voted in favor of the licenses four to one, with
Chairman Gregory Jaczko dissenting.

Jaczko said the new licenses don't go far enough in requiring the
builders to incorporate lessons learned from the Japanese nuclear
disaster last year.

Although new nuclear reactors have come online in the United States
within the last couple of decades -- the last one started operation in
1996 -- the NRC hasn't issued a license to build a new reactor since
1978, a year before the Three Mile Island accident in Pennsylvania.
Reactors that have opened in the last decades received their initial
licenses before 1978.

The combination of the Three Mile Island incident and the high costs
of nuclear power turned many utilities away from the technology.

The utilities building the new Vogtle reactors submitted their
application seven years ago. Prep-work at the site has been under way
for some time, but construction on actual reactors couldn't begin
until the final license was issued.
How close is your home to a nuclear plant?

The new reactors are a Westinghouse design called the AP 1000.
Together they are expected to cost $14 billion and provide 2200
megawatts of power, according to a spokesman for Southern Co. That's
enough to power 1 million homes.

The plants are being built with the help of a conditional $8.3 billion
loan guarantee from the Department of Energy. The loan guarantee is
part of DOE's broader loan program that has been criticized for
backing companies like Solyndra, the bankrupt maker of solar panels.

The Southern spokesman said the loan guarantee, combined with other
regulatory measures, enable the project to receive cheaper financing
that will ultimately save ratepayers $1 billion.

The first reactor is expected to come online in 2016 and the second
one in 2017, according to Southern Co.

The AP 1000 is the newest NRC-approved nuclear reactor. This would be
the first one built in the United States, although four are already
under construction in China, said Scott Shaw, a Westinghouse

Critics have said the containment walls of the AP 1000 aren't strong
enough to withstand a terrorist attack, but Shaw says they were
redesigned after September 11, 2001 and have held up during

He also said the design's passive cooling system makes it much safer
than older designs. The AP 1000 uses gravity and condensation -- not
electricity -- to cool the fuel rods.

It was the loss of electric power that led to the meltdown of Japan's
Fukushima Daiichi reactors following the tsunami in 2011.

Still, a coalition of nine mostly regional anti-nuclear groups say the
current design is not safe. They plan on challenging Thursday's
decision in federal court.

In addition to fears of a meltdown at a nuclear power plant, critics
also point out that the nation still has no long term plan for the
disposal of nuclear waste.

The waste, which is highly radioactive, is currently stored at the
plants themselves while the federal government continues its
decades-long search for a permanent disposal facility.

There are currently 104 operating nuclear reactors at 64 plants across
the country. Half are over 30 years old.

Nuclear power provides the country with about 18% of its electricity.
Coal is the nation's largest source for electricity, providing 43% of
our energy, while natural gas makes up another 25%, according to the
Energy Information Agency.

Renewables make up the remaining 14%, with hydroelectric dams
accounting for more than half of that. Wind accounts for about 3% and
biomass (think paper mills or agricultural plants) another 2%. Solar
and geothermal make up under 1% of American electricity production,
according to EIA.

In addition to the Vogtle plant, 16 other plants across the country
have applications with the the NRC to build 25 more reactors.

Most of those reactors would be built at existing nuclear power plants
but there are two applications submitted for brand new nuclear plants
-- one in Levy County, Fla., and another outside Gaffney, S.C.

Environmentalists are split when it comes to nuclear power. Many are
weary of it, citing the safety, cost and waste disposal concerns.
Others favor it on the grounds that it can provide massive amounts of
power that's basically greenhouse gas-free.

"Moving away from fossil fuels in order to address climate change is
the biggest challenge facing our power sector, and safe nuclear power
will be an important part of that solution," Richard Caperton,
director of clean energy investment at the left-leaning Center for
American Progress said in a statement.

But, underscoring the dichotomy, he added: "If the new reactors are
not brought online in a timely and cost-effective manner, as often
happens with nuclear plants, those consumers could see their electric
bills skyrocket."

-- CNN's Carol Gantt contributed to this report To top of page
First Published: February 9, 2012: 12:15 PM ET

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