Southern Co. and six other companies said they will jointly apply for a license to build a new nuclear power plant, the first in nearly three decades.
The majority owner of Plant Vogtle near Waynesboro - one of the last U.S. nuclear power plants approved for construction - said Wednesday that it joined the consortium to test the government's streamlined licensing process.
The license application marks a major step toward actually building new reactors, which would result in billions of dollars in capital investment and thousands of new jobs.
"By exploring the licensing process, we will gain a much better understanding of the potential cost and potential financial risk of pursuing a license under the new process," said Steve Higginbottom, spokesman for Southern Nuclear Operating Co., which operates Southern Co.'s three nuclear plants.
Mr. Higginbottom said Southern Co.'s joining the consortium means it is interested in, but has not committed to, building a new nuclear unit. But if a new unit were built, it would occur at one of its existing sites: Plant Vogtle; Plant Hatch, near Baxley, Ga.; and Plant Farley, near Dothan, Ala.
"We do believe that nuclear power should remain an option," he said.
Joining Southern Co. are three of the country's largest electricity-generating companies: Chicago-based Exelon Corp., Entergy Nuclear, a unit of New Orleans-based Entergy Corp.; and Baltimore-based Constellation Energy.
Also in the group are EDF International North America Inc., a subsidiary of Electricite de France, which owns interest in a number of U.S. reactors, and two reactor vendors, General Electric and Westinghouse Electric Co. Westinghouse is a subsidiary of the British nuclear company BNFL, a major Savannah River Site contractor.
Power companies have not sought construction and operating approval for a new nuclear plant since 1973.
Interest in new reactors faded after the accident at the Three Mile Island plant in Pennsylvania in 1979.
The Nuclear Energy Institute, the nuclear power industry's Washington trade group, citing Energy Department projections, said the nation will require 350,000-400,000 megawatts of nuclear power in 25 years, nearly four times the industry's current generating capacity.
"Nuclear power plants like Vogtle that were built in the '80s and '90s met increasing demand, but we're coming up on a period where more capacity will be needed," Institute spokesman Steve Kerekes said.
Permits for Plant Vogtle's two 1,215-megawatt nuclear reactors were submitted in 1971, though construction and regulatory approval kept the units idle until the late 1980s. Plant Vogtle was designed to have four reactors.
The Nuclear Regulatory Commission's new streamlined licensing process, created in 1992, essentially makes approval of the construction permit and operating license a one-step process.
"It cuts down the timeline by at least half," said NRC spokesman Scott Burnell.
Mr. Burnell said the consortium is the first company or group of companies to go through the license approval process, which is under a cost-sharing program with the Energy Department.
Because the process is untested, it is rife with uncertainty, which is why the companies have banded together to spread the financial risk.
"We're attempting to reduce those uncertainties," said Marilyn Kray, Exelon Nuclear vice president and spokeswoman for the consortium.
She said the group will put up $7 million a year and "in-kind" services toward the effort in the hopes of getting license approval by 2010.
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