NRC approves Vogtle reactors

Construction will pick up speed

Construction of two reactors at Plant Vogtle will accelerate now that federal approval is in hand, executives from Georgia Power and Southern Co. said shortly after the Nuclear Regulatory Commission agreed to the plan Thursday.

A divided NRC approved the first-ever combined operating license that authorizes both construction and operation of two reactors at Southern Nuclear’s Plant Vogtle south of Augusta.

“Now you will see structure coming out of the ground,” said Tom Fanning, Southern’s CEO, at a news conference in Atlanta.

A crane is already in place for installation of the first permanent components and reinforcing steel is on hand to go into concrete structures at the plant near Waynesboro. The companies have been earthmoving for years to prepare the site, spending $4 billion already.

But construction of permanent structures could not begin until the NRC gave Thursday’s go-ahead.

“Now it’s time to go to work,” Georgia Power President Paul Bowers said.

It has taken the companies, and the other Georgia utilities that are minority owners of the plant, seven years to get to this point.

Asked about the possibility of lawsuits and regulatory changes adding delays to the project, Fanning swept them aside. He said the issues from the legal challenges already in the works from environmental groups have already been explored and resolved by government-oversight agencies. And changes due to new safety regulations stemming from lessons drawn from Japan’s nuclear-plant meltdown are more likely for existing U.S. plants than for the design used for Vogtle’s new reactors.

The men predicted Georgia’s economy would soon feel the benefits of the full pace of this $14 billion project that is expected to require as much as 5,000 workers on site and another 25,000 at companies around the globe where various components are built.

“This is a tremendous economic boost,” Fanning said.

Although preliminary work has been under way at the Burke County site for three years, the license granted Thursday – in a 4-1 vote with NRC Chairman Gregory B. Jaczko dissenting – will allow construction on the first new commercial power reactors built in the U.S. in three decades.

Jaczko said his dissension stemmed from concerns that lessons learned since Japan’s Fukushima disaster might not be fully explored.

“I cannot support issuing this license as if Fukushima never happened,” he told colleagues, in a noon meeting webcast from NRC headquarters in Maryland.

Fellow commissioners, however, expressed confidence that safety recommendations made since the Japan crisis will be properly implemented.

“There is no amnesia, individually or collectively,” commissioner Kristine L. Svinicki said of the NRC’s attention to lessons learned from Fukushima.

Commissioner William D. Magwood agreed. “Plant Vogtle’s units 3 and 4 will represent a new era of nuclear safety,” he said.

The license, which could be issued within 10 days, according to NRC staffers, will lead to the construction of the first AP1000 modular reactors in the U.S., creating a workforce expected to peak at about 3,500 during the next three years, with total job creation estimated at 5,000.

The NRC certified Westinghouse’s amended AP1000 design on Dec. 30, 2011. The AP1000 is a 1,100-megawatt, electric, pressurized-water reactor that includes passive safety features that would cool the reactor after an accident without the need for electricity or human intervention.

Vogtle is the first U.S. site where the reactors will be built, but four AP1000 units have been under construction in China for more than two years.

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