ATLANTA -- Power company Southern Co. won a major victory when President Barack Obama promised billions in financial help to build the first new nuclear power plant in a generation, but there is still a long road ahead before the plant starts producing electricity.
Federal regulators are at least months away from deciding whether to issue construction and operation permits for two new reactors at Plant Vogtle, an existing nuclear power station about 160 miles southeast of Atlanta. In October, federal regulators asked for more information on whether shields protecting the proposed reactors could withstand an earthquake, tornado, hurricane or the impact of a hijacked jetliner.
Legal challenges have also been filed by a collection of environmental groups trying to block the expansion by arguing the plant does not have plans for storing low-level nuclear waste among other concerns. They are challenging a Georgia law allowing Georgia Power, a Southern Co. subsidiary that's the majority investor in the plant, to bill its customers for the project's finance costs before the reactors start producing power in 2016 and 2017.
The Southern Co. and its partners believe the latest nuclear technology is safer than an earlier generation of reactors and can produce power at a price competitive with fossil fuel sources, especially if Congress imposes a tax on carbon emissions to curb the greenhouse gasses blamed for global warming.
"In almost all scenarios, nuclear wins out," said Buzz Miller, executive vice president for nuclear development at Southern Nuclear and Georgia Power, both subsidiaries of Atlanta-based Southern Co.
The project at Plant Vogtle is being closely watched since it could become the first to break ground since soaring interest rates, a tanking economy and expensive redesigns required after an accident at the Three Mile Island power station in Pennsylvania contributed to an industrywide stall 30 years ago.
"If they actually started digging and pouring concrete, it would be a major development in the revival," said Daniel Pope, a history professor who studied the collapse of a nuclear building boom in "Nuclear Implosions: The Rise and Fall of the Washington Public Power Supply System."
Opponents such as the Knoxville, Tenn.-based Southern Alliance For Clean Energy say the new reactor would not be necessary if Georgia's leaders focused on conserving energy.
"We just didn't think that Georgia Power ratepayers should bear the risk of this project when we think efficiency and conservation are really the energy resources that need to be tapped," said Sara Barczak, who monitors the expansion at Plant Vogtle for the group.
Building a nuclear power plant from scratch is a long process.
The state's Public Service Commission, which regulates electric utilities, ruled last year that Georgia Power could go forward with its proposal to construct the two new reactors at Plant Vogtle. A few months later, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, which is responsible for safety at the nation's power plants, gave the Southern Co. early approval to use the site of its Waynesboro plant for new reactors.
That permit allowed the plant's owners to excavate at the site of the proposed reactors and do other limited work, NRC spokesman Roger Hannah said.
But the critical decisions will be made in the coming months.
Among the largest is whether the NRC should issue a construction and operations license for the new plant. Company officials estimate approval could come in 2011 or possibly 2012, although the NRC has not issued a firm timeline.
To get the permit, the Westinghouse Electric Co., which would build the reactors, is providing safety regulators with additional information it hopes will prove the building protecting the AP1000 model can withstand a disaster. If approved, Vogtle would become the first plant in the United States to use that reactor, although three are under construction in China, said Westinghouse spokesman Vaughn Gilbert.
Winning the license is also key if the project is to receive $8 billion in federal loan guarantees promised by the Obama administration. Industry officials view the guarantees as critical because of the huge expenses and risks involved in building a nuclear power plant.
The process for constructing a nuclear power plant has changed radically since the last round of building. This time, the nuclear industry is hoping to cut down on regulatory hurdles by relying on standardized reactor designs like the AP1000 instead of building different technology for each plant.
Federal regulators have also adopted a one-stop license rather than forcing new plants to get one license to build a reactor and a second to operate it. For example, Southern Co. won permission to build its first reactor in Waynesboro in 1974, but it did not receive an operating license until 1987 because of pricey overhauls necessary when safety requirements changed.