How much “new” nuclear and how soon?

Those are the front-of-mind questions for nuclear and many cleaner energy advocates with today’s U.S. government approval of the construction and operation of two new nuclear power reactors by Southern Company in Georgia using the “AP1000″ design by Westinghouse.

The quick answer appears to be: a total of four new reactors by 2020.

It was 33 years ago when the last nuclear power plant received construction approval by what has become the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC). That same year, in 1979, a reactor at the Three Mile Island plant in central Pennsylvania suffered a partial meltdown. For the next quarter-century, the industry was on its heels defending and re-engineering the technology. It has had to respond to far more serious nuclear plant accidents in the Ukraine (Chernobyl)  in 1986 and just last year after earthquake and resulting tsunami in Japan destroyed several reactors at the Fukushima power plant.

Two reactors at Plant Vogtle will be the first "new" nuclear plant to generate electricity starting around 2017. CREDIT: Southern Company

But with the threat — to some — of global warming, nuclear’s “carbon-free” messages have resonated with many lawmakers, regulators and some environmentalists increasingly cognizant of the health and environmental effects of coal-fired power.

Buoyed by an $8.3 billion loan guarantee for Southern Company’s now-licensed “Vogtle” plant in eastern Georgia, the industry is now back on track. At a cost of about $14 billion, Vogtle is slated to begin generating electricity by 2017.

Close on the heels of Vogtle are two AP1000 reactors owned by South Carolina Electric & Gas at the “V.C. Summer” plant in Fairfield County. Approval for the construction and operation of those reactors is expected “imminently,” according to a spokesman at the Nuclear Energy Institute.

After the reactors in South Carolina, there are 10 more AP1000 design reactors in the approval pipeline at the Nuclear Regulatory Commission slated to generate electricity for Duke Energy, Florida Power & Light, Progress Energy and the Tennessee Valley Authority (with NuStart). Assuming timely approvals, their electricity likely won’t hit the power grid until after 2020. See a list of the AP1000 and other technologies here.

While the industry hailed the approval Thursday, questions remain:

  • How secure is the supply of uranium fuel given that 80 percent of mined uranium comes from the former Soviet Union?  American Petroleum Institute economist John Felmy seemed to go out of his to make that point at a National Association of State Energy Officials “Energy Outlook” conference in Washington today.
  • How should highly-radioactive spent fuel rods be managed and ultimately disposed of? Do they remain in containers at each power plant, as is the current practice? Should they be consolidated and stored deep underground northwest of Las Vegas in Yucca Mountain? Or does some other solution make sense?
  • Has the NRC and the industry adequately addressed the myriad lessons learned from Fukushima?

As the sole dissenting vote by the five NRC commissioners on the Vogtle license, Chairman Gregory Jazkco asserted that “there’s still more work ahead of us” to ensure the plant’s safe operations, according to this report in POLITICO. “Knowing this, I cannot support issuing this license as if Fukushima had never happened.”