By Brien Southward
The Nuclear Regulatory Commission is expected to grant a license to build two near reactors near Augusta, Georgia at the Southern Company's Alvin W. Vogtle plant. In anticipation of the license, the first issued in over three decades, the Southern Company has already invested hundreds of millions of dollars into preparing the site, which already houses two reactors from the late 1980s.
The last time a license was granted to build new nuclear reactors was in 1978, a year before the infamous Three Mile Island incident in Pennsylvania. As a result of Three Mile Island, the Chernobyl disaster in 1986, and the Fukushima Daiichi disaster in 2011, nuclear power has been a controversial subject in the United States, a nation which still generates most of its power from various fossil fuels.
Southern hopes that, despite the project's estimated cost of $14 billion, the reactor's 60-year lifespan will make it cheaper in the long run than operating traditional fossil fuel plants. When the Bush Administration set aside $17.5 billion in loan guarantees for nuclear projects, the two new Vogtle reactors were intended to be the first in a series of new nuclear operations, but the "nuclear rebirth" has proven much smaller than expected, leaving much of that money available.
Although new technologies have brought more and more gas, coal, and oil within reach, and despite the economic recession slowing the growth of demand, proponents of nuclear power as a "cleaner" alternative to fossil fuels still hope that the long-term trend of rising fuel prices will gradually make nuclear energy a more attractive option for meeting the world's energy needs.
Due to low natural gas prices and objections to new nuclear projects by various anti-nuclear and environmentalist groups, the Vogtle reactors may remain the only nuclear projects moving towards construction in the United States for the near future. Opponents claim that Southern has not adequately assessed the reactor's design in response to the safety lessons learned from the Fukushima Disaster. Nonetheless, natural gas prices will not stay low forever, and in the long run the investment in a new nuclear facility may well pay off.