STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
Well, here's something that has not happened since 1978: The federal government has approved a plan to build nuclear reactors. The nuclear plants won approval in Georgia. The industry is celebrating, as you might expect, but people are also remembering last year's nuclear accident in Japan and also thinking of the cost of new power plants. Here's NPR's Christopher Joyce.
CHRISTOPHER JOYCE, BYLINE: Scott Peterson is vice president of the industry's Nuclear Energy Institute. He doesn't much remember the last time a new nuclear reactor got its operating license.
SCOTT PETERSON: No. I was in college, actually. I just wanted, like everybody else, wanted electricity to be there when I needed it.
JOYCE: Now the Nuclear Regulatory Commission has approved the first new licenses in over three decades. The Southern Company will build the reactors at its Vogtle site in Georgia, where two older reactors already operate. Peterson says it's not a nuclear renaissance, but instead a first wave for new reactors.
PETERSON: It's obviously a critical event for the industry in terms of moving forward with the next generation of reactor technology.
JOYCE: The new reactors would be the first of a standardized design: Instead of each one being unique, they're all nearly identical. But demand for electricity is flat. And the price of natural gas, also used to make electricity, is low. The Vogtle plant will cost $14 billion, at least, to build. Peterson says that's OK. Nuclear still has a place. Gas prices are unpredictable, and so is energy from wind and solar.
PETERSON: Nuclear plants, because they are very large, 24/7 power producers, really anchor the entire U.S. grid for electricity.
JOYCE: There are objections, however. A coalition called the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy plans to sue to stop the reactors. Alliance head Stephen Smith says the region doesn't need a new plant. He says the power company is motivated by a healthy profit margin guaranteed by the state.
STEPHEN SMITH: Not because we need the power, but because this is going to so help their bottom line by bringing this major financial asset in.
JOYCE: Smith also argues that engineers are still figuring out what went wrong at the Fukushima meltdown in Japan last year. He says Southern Company might have to make expensive retrofits if the NRC requires big design changes.
SMITH: We would argue that, not only from a safety point of view, but also from an economic point of view, that you need to get these lessons learned, incorporated in before you rush to build the reactor.
JOYCE: The chairman of the five-member Nuclear Commission, Gregory Jaczko, apparently agrees. His was the sole vote against the license. He says he wants Southern Company to promise they'll incorporate lessons learned from Japan. But experts on the NRC staff point out that the new reactors, made by Westinghouse, can already handle some of the things that went haywire in Japan. For example, in Japan, the reactors lost electric power, so emergency pumps could not cool the melting cores with water.
Roger Hannah, an NRC spokesman, says the new reactors use gravity instead of pumps to feed in emergency water.
ROGER HANNAH: These passive systems do not require electricity to operate the cooling systems. So you could actually flood the core and provide water for cooling without having access to power.
JOYCE: The Vogtle plant is one of several that have been slogging through the permit process at the NRC. Energy analyst Richard Caperton at the Center for American Progress says its approval provides the nuclear industry with a shot of adrenaline, but it's also going to be a target.
RICHARD CAPERTON: This is going to be an important test case. What we learn form the Southern plant is going to impact what we do with nuclear power over the next 10, 20 and 30 years in this country.
JOYCE: If things go as planned, the reactors will be making electricity four or five years from now. If not, the company is seeking an $8.3 billion loan guarantee from the federal government to cover its losses. Christopher Joyce, NPR News.