David Jones grew up watching the massive Browns Ferry nuclear units being built near his home in Athens, Ala. The son of a pipefitter who worked at the plants, Jones knew as a youngster that he wanted to build nuclear plants for the Tennessee Valley Authority.

Thirty years after earning a degree in civil engineering, Jones is heading a team that is building the first nuclear plant in the United States in more than 20 years.

“It’s a dream come true for me,” says Jones, vice president of Southern Co.’s two new nuclear units at Plant Vogtle, which is located near Waynesboro, Ga. One could argue that it’s also a dream come true for the nuclear industry, which has largely focused on existing plant maintenance for the 20-year lull preceding the Plant Vogtle project.

Given the hub of activity at Plant Vogtle, there’s no denying that—at least here in Georgia and in the U.S.—a nuclear renaissance is under way. But at other sites in the U.S., what is being called a nuclear renaissance has stalled as financing sources have dried up and demand for electricity has fallen. Nuclear contractors in the U.S. say those obstacles are temporary. They expect that, within two or three years, this country’s nuclear revival will blossom just as nuclear power has flourished elsewhere in the world; globally, 61 new plants are under construction. Supporters of nuclear power claim that the U.S. will benefit from overseas experience gained from the development of new standardized units that use cheaper and more efficient modular construction.

“It will be a renaissance only seen looking back 30 or 40 years from now, not looking one year at a time,” says Jack Bailey, vice president of nuclear generation development for TVA.

David Jones

The consortium behind Plant Vogtle’s units Nos. 3 and 4 include contractors The Shaw Group and Westinghouse Electric, along with 1,300 laborers digging foundations and constructing support buildings at the site.

Unit construction is slated to begin after the Nuclear Regulatory Commission issues the plant its combined construction and operating license, expected in late 2011. When completed in 2016 and 2017, respectively, the two Westinghouse-designed Advanced Passive 1000 reactor units will add about 2,300 megawatts to the region’s grid—enough to power an estimated 575,000 homes and businesses.

Spartanburg, S.C.-based Morgan Corp. has been excavating the foundation of the reactors to 180 ft deep and backfilling to 90 ft for the reactor foundation. Craftspeople are piecing together a nuclear containment vessel fabricated by Netherlands-based Chicago Bridge and Iron Works. In Lake Charles, La., Shaw has begun building the plant’s modular pieces, which will be shipped and pieced together at a six-story building already constructed at Plant Vogtle. The price tag for the project is estimated at $14 billion.

Public + Private Funds = Financing

The U.S. Dept. of Energy has been emphasizing nuclear power since 2005, when it announced an $18.5-billion loan guarantee program for the sector. Those guarantees, along with a rise in natural-gas prices to $12 per million British thermal units (mmBtu) a few years ago, encouraged a stampede of applications to build 23 reactors. But when credit markets froze in 2008 and natural-gas prices dropped to $4 per mmBtu, the economics of new plants also froze. “The industry in the U.S. is probably not running quite as robustly as we expected,” says Jim Bernhard, CEO of Baton Rouge, La.-based Shaw Group, which is managing the construction.

In addition to Southern, only South Carolina Gas and Electric (SCANA) is moving forward with significant preliminary work for two new AP1000s reactors in Jenkinsville, S.C. Both Southern and SCANA have been able to begin work on the multibillion-dollar plants in this tight financial environment because state regulators have allowed the companies to include some of the costs in the rate base, known as “construction work in progress,” or CWIP. This approach helps attract financing for the plant.

Southern has received the first—and so far, only— loan guarantee from the Dept. of Energy. In June, DOE awarded Southern and its Vogtle partners an $8.3-billion loan guarantee.

After the $8.3-billion loan guarantee from the DOE, the remaining costs, roughly $5.7 billion, will have to be financed through the bond markets and through CWIP, says Aneesh Prabhu, an analyst at Standard & Poor’s who has been examining the nuclear markets. (Standard & Poor’s is owned by McGraw-Hill, which also owns Engineering News-Record.) The DOE loan guarantees were intended to help the rare project that couldn’t get financing;...

This article was updated at 3:30 p.m. December 1, 2010.