Commissioners at the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) on Thursday voted 4–1 to direct staff to prepare a construction and operation license (COL) for Southern Co.’s two AP1000 reactors at Plant Vogtle, south of Augusta, which could become operational between 2016 and 2017. NRC Chair Gregory Jaczko, who cast the lone vote against the COL, cited the need for safety enhancements recommended as a result of the Fukushima accident last March for reasons of his dissent.

“There is still more work ahead of us,” Jaczko said. “Knowing this, I cannot support issuing these licenses as if Fukushima never happened.”

The last approval given for a new reactor was in 1978, a year before the partial meltdown at Three Mile Island in Pennsylvania. The two new Vogtle reactors will be added to the two-unit site in Waynesboro, Ga., and will represent a $14 billion investment. Units 1 and 2 at that site took 16 years to build and experienced cost overruns of nearly $8 billion.

Southern Co. subsidiary Georgia Power filed an Application for Certification of Vogtle Units 3&4 with the Georgia Public Service Commission on August 1, 2008. The state regulatory body approved proposed Vogtle expansion in March 2009, and in April 2009, Units 3 and 4 were named the U.S. nuclear industry reference plant for the AP1000. Later, in August 2009, an Early Site Permit (ESP) and Limited Work Authorization (LWA) were issued by the NRC. The project also received $8.3 billion in conditional federal loan guarantees in February 2010. Energy Secretary Steven Chu signaled Monday that the loan guarantee is nearing final approval.

“Imagine what it took to become the first nuclear facility to be approved in a generation of Americans,” Tom Fanning, Southern Co. CEO told reporters last week. “The NRC’s new process for nuclear licensing is thoughtful, thorough and complete. It delivers the safety oversight and accountability our communities rightfully demand. Southern Company’s no-excuses policy is simple, and I get it completely: Safety comes first. The new NRC license creates that standard… and Southern Company plans to exceed it.”

Sources: POWERnews, Southern Co., NRC