Commission OKs First New Nuclear Reactors Since 1970s

New reactor approval signals U.S. ready to proceed despite Fukushima meltdown.


For the first time since the Three Mile Island meltdown in 1979, the United States Nuclear Regulatory Commission granted a license for new reactor construction Thursday, signaling that America is ready to move forward with nuclear energy after the Fukushima meltdown in Japan last year.

In a statement, the Nuclear Energy Institute, which advocates for nuclear energy expansion, said the commission's 4-1 decision to approve two new reactors at the Vogtle nuclear power plant on the South Carolina-Georgia border is a "clarion call to the world that the United States recognizes the importance of expanding nuclear energy."

An additional license for new reactors at an existing plant in Fairfield County, S.C., is expected to be granted in the coming weeks, according to NEI spokesman Steven Kerekes.

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Approval for new reactors was essentially halted for more than 30 years after the Three Mile Island incident. Construction of already-approved reactors continued until 1996, when the last approved plant was built in Tennessee. NRC spokesman Scott Burnell said no licenses had been granted since Three Mile Island simply because "nobody had asked [the NRC] for permission to start a project since 1978." The new Vogtle reactors are expected to be finished around 2017, more than 20 years after the Tennessee reactors became operational. There are 104 operational nuclear reactors in the United States that provide about 20 percent of the country's energy.

The new reactors will feature "passive safety features" that would automatically cool down the reactor in the event of a meltdown even if the plant loses electricity, preventing humans from being exposed to radiation, as they were in Fukushima.

"The NRC confirmed that after Fukushima, our facilities are operating safely," Kerekes says. "At the same time, there's some safety enhancements they're undertaking, despite the fact that they're already safe. These enhancements will increase the margin of safety by another order of magnitude."

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Not everyone agrees with Kerekes. NRC Chairman Gregory Jaczko, the lone dissenting voter in the Vogtle approval, said the license doesn't include a "binding commitment" that safety upgrades would be implemented before the reactors go into operation, and that he "simply cannot ignore what happened at Fukushima."

"Significant safety enhancements have already been recommended as a result of learning the lessons from Fukushima, and there is still more work ahead of us," he wrote. "Knowing this, I cannot support issuing these licenses as if Fukushima never happened. But, without this license condition, in my view, that is what we are doing."

The other voters, in the license order, admitted that their review of the Fukushima meltdown is "ongoing," but said that the board will review the Vogtle plant reactors before they become operational.

"All affected nuclear plants will be required to comply with NRC direction resulting from lessons learned from the Fukushima accident, regardless of the timing of issuance of the affected licenses," they wrote. "We therefore expect that the new Vogtle units will comply with all applicable 'post-Fukushima' requirements."

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