Is the regulatory approval of two new reactors a sign the nuclear power industry is poised for its renaissance after more than 30 years of stagnation?
The Nuclear Regulatory Commission last week approved a license for two new reactors at Southern Company's Vogtle plant in Georgia. NRC hadn't issued a license for a new reactor since 1978, just a year before the Three Mile Island accident, when a cooling malfunction caused part of a reactor core to melt and release radioactive gases around Harrisburg, Pa. With NRC's stamp of approval, Southern Company is now primed to receive an $8.3 billion loan guarantee the Energy Department conditionally awarded it almost exactly two years ago. Meanwhile, Congress, the administration, and the nuclear power industry are still grappling with what to do with waste, since Yucca Mountain, the repository site in Nevada, is no longer an option.
Will this approval pave the way for companies to build other nuclear reactors? Or will other obstacles, such as low natural-gas prices, stricter regulations post-Fukushima, and persistent nuclear-waste concerns, prove too high to surmount? What role should nuclear power fill in energy and environment policies President Obama and Congress are pursuing?
What environmental concerns should be considered when expanding nuclear power? What lessons from Japan's Fukushima disaster should the industry and Washington bear in mind?