By Larry Copeland
ATLANTA – The Nuclear Regulatory Commission approved the nation’s first nuclear power plant in a generation on Thursday, clearing the way for Atlanta-based Southern Co. to build two reactors at its Plant Vogtle site near Augusta.
The commission approved a license on a 4-1 vote over the objections of environmentalists and the NRC’s own chairman, Gregory Jaczko. It’s the first approval since 1978, the year before the Three Mile Island accident in Pennsylvania.
Jaczko said he couldn’t vote for the licensing without a commitment from Southern that it would make safety changes prompted by the March 2011 nuclear disaster in Japan.
Southern President and CEO Thomas Fanning said the approval was “a monumental accomplishment” for the company, its partners and the nuclear industry.
“We are committed to bringing these units online to deliver clean, safe and reliable energy to our customers,” he said.
The company expects to begin operating the new units in 2016 and 2017. They will cost more than $14 billion. It says the project will generate 4,000 to 5,000 construction jobs.
Some residents of the communities near Plant Vogtle, who maintain that some cancers have increased since 1987, when Southern opened the first of two existing reactors, were dismayed.
“I think it’s a sad day for the people who live in this area,” said Willie Tomlin, pastor of Thomas Grove Baptist Church in Waynesboro.
“The people who live here have not been looked after for the first two reactors. If that was not the case, we would not have had this serious increase in cancer that we’ve had since they came online.”
Other residents have been staunch supporters of Vogtle, which is Burke County‘s largest employer, generating about 70% of the local tax base. City officials have said the tax revenue is expected to double when the new reactors come online.
Nine environmental groups plan a challenge in federal court in Washington, said Stephen Smith, executive director of one group, the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy, an energy policy and environmental organization in Georgia, Tennessee, the Carolinas and Florida.
The groups say that the approval process was rushed and that regulators failed to incorporate lessons from Japan’s accident.
“In a very literal sense, the rubble has not cooled in Japan, and the NRC has granted a license for a new, unproven reactor design here in the United States,” Smith said.
The other organizations are: Friends of the Earth, Blue Ridge Environmental Defense League, Center for a Sustainable Coast, Citizens Allied for Safe Energy, Georgia Women’s Action for New Directions, North Carolina Waste Awareness and Reduction Network, Nuclear Information and Resource Service, and Nuclear Watch South.
The groups want federal judges to require the NRC to prepare a new environmental impact statement for the new reactors. They want the new statement to explain how cooling systems for the reactors and spent fuel storage pools will be upgraded to protect against earthquakes, flooding and prolonged loss of electrical power.
Earlier Thursday, Fanning told reporters here that the company had “taken into account” the Japan disaster and will make necessary safety changes to the current and new reactors once an analysis of lessons learned from Japan is completed.