WASHINGTON — The nation's first new nuclear power plant in a generation won approval Thursday as federal regulators voted to grant a license for two new reactors at a site in eastern Georgia.
Atlanta-based Southern Co. hopes to begin operating the $14 billion reactors at its Vogtle site south of Augusta as soon as 2016. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission approved the company's plans on a 4-1 vote.
The NRC last approved construction of a nuclear plant in 1978, a year before a partial meltdown of the Three Mile Island nuclear plant in Pennsylvania. After that accident, fears of a radiation release were heightened and new reactor orders were brought nearly to a halt.
The planned reactors, along with two others in South Carolina expected to win approval in coming months, are the remnants of a once-anticipated building boom that the power industry dubbed the "nuclear renaissance." The head of an industry lobbying group said the Vogtle project could be the start of a smaller renaissance that expands nuclear power in the United States.
"This is a historic day," said Marvin Fertel, president and CEO of the Nuclear Energy Institute. He said the NRC vote "sounds a clarion call to the world that the United States recognizes the importance of expanding nuclear energy as a key component of a low-carbon energy future that is central to job creation, diversity of electricity supply and energy security."
President Barack Obama and other proponents say greater use of nuclear power could cut the nation's reliance on fossil fuels and create energy without producing emissions blamed for global warming. The Obama administration has offered the Vogtle project $8.3 billion in federal loan guarantees as part of its pledge to expand nuclear power.
More than two dozen nuclear reactors have been proposed in recent years, but experts now say it is likely that only five or six new reactors will be completed by the end of the decade.
The once-expected nuclear power boom has been plagued by a series of problems, from the prolonged economic downturn to the sharp drop in the price of natural gas and the March 2011 nuclear disaster in Japan.
"It's clear the nuclear renaissance has been significantly slowed," said Edwin Lyman of the Union of Concerned Scientists, a watchdog group. Lyman blamed what he called "inappropriate optimism" about nuclear power that ignores the huge start-up costs and safety risks.
The Vogtle project is considered by many observers to be a major test of whether the industry can build nuclear plants without the delays and cost overruns that plagued earlier rounds of building.
Close on the project's heels is South Carolina Electric & Gas Co., which is seeking permission to build two reactors at an existing plant in Jenkinsville, S.C. In addition, construction of a second reactor at the Watts Bar nuclear plant in Tennessee is under way after years of delay.
NRC Chairman Gregory Jaczko voted against the Vogtle license, saying he wanted a binding commitment from the company that it would make safety changes prompted by the Japan disaster.
"We've given them a license. They have not given us any commitment they will make these changes in the future," Jaczko said.
The meltdown at the Fukushima Dai-ichi plant led to a series of recommendations by the NRC to improve safety at the 104 commercial nuclear reactors in the U.S. The changes are intended to make the plants better prepared for incidents they were not initially designed to handle, such as prolonged power blackouts or damage to multiple reactors at the same time.
The changes are still being developed, though Jaczko said it is clear that they will be required by the NRC before the new reactors begin operating.
Despite his opposition to the license, Jaczko called the vote "historic" and a culmination of years of work by Southern Co. and the NRC.
Southern Company Chairman and CEO Thomas A. Fanning called the NRC vote "a monumental accomplishment for Southern Company, Georgia Power, our partners and the nuclear industry."
Fanning said the company was "committed to bringing these units online to deliver clean, safe and reliable energy to our customers."
The NRC license "creates a standard of performance there, and Southern Company expects to exceed it," Fanning said.
Allison Fisher, an energy expert for the consumer advocacy group Public Citizen, called the NRC's action — less than a year after the Japan crisis — a step in the wrong direction.
"It is inexplicable that we've chosen this moment in history to expand the use of a failed and dangerous technology," she said.
While other countries such as Germany are reversing their commitment to nuclear power, "the U.S. is approving new reactors before the full suite of lessons from Japan has been learned and before new safety regulations that were recommended by a task force established after the meltdown crisis at Fukushima have been implemented," Fisher said.
The NRC approved a new reactor design for the Vogtle plant in December. Utility companies in Florida and the Carolinas also plan new reactors that use the same design by Westinghouse Electric Co.
Jack Spencer, a nuclear expert for the conservative Heritage Foundation, called approval of the Vogtle project "good news," but added: "I don't think this is the beginning of a full-scale renaissance" for the nuclear industry.
"Too many questions remain" about nuclear waste, government regulation and development of nuclear technology, Spencer said.
Associated Press writer Kate Brumback in Atlanta contributed to this story.