WASHINGTON - The Nuclear Regulatory Commission voted 4 to 1 yesterday to grant a license to build two reactors at a nuclear plant in Georgia - a milestone for an industry whose long-hoped-for renaissance has been smaller and later than anticipated.
It was the first time the commission decided to grant a license for a new reactor since 1978, a year before the Three Mile Island accident in Pennsylvania. In anticipation of approval, the plant’s owner, the Southern Co., has dug a foundation and begun laying water pipes at its Alvin W. Vogtle plant near Augusta.
The sole vote against approval was cast by the commission’s chairman, Gregory B. Jaczko. He said the construction and operating license would not assure that all of the safety improvements mandated by the agency in response to Japan’s Fukushima disaster would be accomplished before the reactors begin operating in 2016 and 2017.
The plant, which already has two reactors dating from the 1980s, will be the largest nuclear complex in the United States.
Southern and its partners are swimming against the tide, betting that even with the project’s approximately $14 billion price tag, nuclear power will prove cheaper than using coal, natural gas, or any other source over the estimated 60-year lifetime of the reactors. Few other companies are willing to take the gamble, given the current economic and political picture.
Natural gas prices are at low levels, and pressures to address global warming by putting a price on carbon emissions have faded, diminishing hopes that nuclear energy will be championed as a cleaner alternative to fossil fuels.
“In the current environment, we have the combination of low natural gas prices, abundant supplies of natural gas, relatively modest electricity demand growth coming out of the recession, and the lack of a price on carbon,’’ said James K. Asselstine, managing director of Barclays Capital, who served on the NRC from 1982 to 1987. “It’s probably unlikely we’ll see other plants move to construction in the very near term.’’
Vogtle 3 and 4 were supposed to be the first in a wave of new projects after the George W. Bush administration set aside $17.5 billion in loan guarantees for nuclear projects. But the nuclear rebirth has been so puny that much of that money is still available. The Energy Department has promised an $8.3 billion loan guarantee for the two reactors.
Georgia Power, the Southern Co. subsidiary building the plant, said in a 2008 filing with the state Public Service Commission that electricity generated by Vogtle 3 and 4 could cost customers $6.5 billion less than power generated by coal or natural gas in the lifetime of the reactors.
Nine organizations said this week that they would sue to try to block the license because the commission had not adequately analyzed the new reactors’ design for hazards in response to last year’s calamity at Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi plant. The commission has ordered existing plants to adopt some safeguards in response to the Fukushima calamity and is considering others.