Vogtle Unit 3 containment vessel bottom head being assembled. Credit- Souther Company

In a historic vote earlier today, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) approved Southern Company's application to construct the nation's first nuclear reactors in over 30 years.

The license was granted in a 4-1 vote, and permits two new reactors to be built at Georgia Power's Plant Vogtle (about 170 miles east of Atlanta). Plant Vogtle already has two other reactors of an older design.

"This is a momentous occasion for the citizens of the Southeast and for the advancement of our national energy policy," said Southern Company CEO Thomas Fanning in a small conference room at the company's headquarters in Atlanta. Fanning added that the project will set the standard for safety and efficiency.

Not only does the NRC vote serve as one of the first green lights for the nuclear industry in a long while, it also introduces a new reactor design to the U.S. market (four AP1000 reactors are under construction in China). Westinghouse's AP1000 pressurized water reactor utilizes a modular design and passive safety features, such as gravity, to cool its core in the case of a meltdown. The NRC approved this new reactor design in December 2011.

However, not everyone believes the new licenses fully embrace the tragic lessons learned from the Fukushima Daiichi meltdown – the most notable person being NRC Chairman Gregory Jaczko, who voted against license approval this morning. Also, nine anti-nuclear groups have said they will challenge the decision in court in the name of environmental and human safety.

Even so, Southern Co. foresees construction continuing as planned, said Fanning. Limited construction for Units 3 and 4 started a number of years ago, and the now approved "combined operating license" allows for their completion, which includes building the containment and reactor cooling systems.

According to Georgia Power Company President Paul Bowers, the $14 billion project will generate approximately 5,000 jobs in Ga., and 25,000 more globally. And if construction goes according to plan, Plant Vogtle Units 3 and 4 will become operational in 2016 and 2017.

Despite the positive and proud nature of the announcement by Southern Company today, certain questions about a nuclear renaissance can only be answered with time. The first is whether the safety issues that plagued the Fukushima Daiichi plant will continue to haunt the industry. The second is whether the new reactors can be built on time and at cost?

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Article: Nuclear Reactor Approved in U.S. for First Time Since 1978