U.S. regulators on Thursday authorized plans to construct the nation’s first nuclear power plant in three decades, despite concerns stemming from Japan’s 2011 earthquake that led to a meltdown at the Fukushima nuclear plant last March. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) voted 4-1 to grant Atlanta-based Southern Company a license to begin operating two new reactors at its existing Vogtle plant in Georgia, which will cost about $14 billion and are expected to enter service as early as 2016 and 2017.
The Georgia plant will introduce the first American versions of the "third-generation" reactors that have been emerging in China, and they are purported to be safer, with resilient and longer-lasting batteries and gravity-powered cooling systems that can operate longer during emergencies. The landmark vote is not a "nuclear renaissance," but rather a "first wave" for new reactors, contended Scott Peterson, vice president of the Nuclear Energy Institute. "It’s obviously a critical event for the industry in terms of moving forward with the next generation of reactor technology."
Licensing for U.S. nuclear power plants has been stunted since 1978, when there was a partial meltdown of a reactor at the Three Mile Island plant in Pennsylvania. Following the accident, the NRC enacted highly regulated safety standards, which spurred a calamitous rise in construction costs and blocked development of dozens of nuclear plants. Therefore, the 104 U.S. nuclear plants still under operation are modeled from construction dating to the 1960s and 1970s.
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