The first new nuclear plant in the United States in more than 30 years got the final green light on Feb. 9, as the Nuclear Regulatory Commission authorized its staff to issue a construction and operating license for Georgia Power’s new nuclear units, Vogtle 3 & 4, near Waynesboro, Ga.

The NRC approval means the Shaw Group, Baton Rouge, La., and Westinghouse Electric Co., Pittsburgh, the joint venture engineering, procurement and construction contractor, can begin nuclear work at the plant. An NRC spokesman says the NRC staff would issue the license Feb. 10.

Southern Company and its partners have already spent about $4 billion on licensing and site work for the $14 billion units. They are expected to come online in 2016 and 2017 and each will supply 1,100 MW of electricity.

Shaw and Westinghouse have been conducting massive pre-construction activity since late 2008, building foundations for some buildings, and piecing together the containment vessel.

Some of the first nuclear tasks include construction of a large crane and moving the nuclear reactor into place, says Paul Bower, president and CEO of Georgia Power, the subsidiary of Southern Power that will own 45.7% of the new units. MEAG Power, Oglethorpe Power and the city of Dalton, Ga., will also have part ownership.

“Now you will see structures coming out of the ground and it will be amazing,” Bowers said during a news conference following the vote on Wed., Feb. 9.  With the COL, Shaw and Westinghouse can lay nuclear rebar and pour nuclear concrete. About 5,000 workers are expected on site during peak construction in late 2013.

NRC Chairman Dissents

The NRC approved the license on a 4-1 vote, with Chairman Gregory Jaczko dissenting. Jackzo says binding conditions related to last year’s Fukushima incident should have been attached to the license. “I cannot support issuing this license as if Fukushima never happened,” he said after the vote.

But the other commissioners said plans to address the Fukushima disaster were sufficient.

Tom Fanning, president of Southern Company, said during a conference call Feb. 9 that the new AP1000 design was better able to address concerns raised by Fukushima. “There will be issues that apply to the U.S. nuclear fleet, but they will apply much more to the existing fleet.”

On Feb. 8, nine environmental groups said they would seek a stay from the US Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia to prevent construction from proceeding at the Vogtle site. The groups, which include the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy, said that the NRC should incorporate changes stemming from the review of Fukushima, into a license for Vogtle.

The plant is the first since 1978 to receive a construction license, and the first to receive a new combined construction and operating license. In the last round of nuclear plants, construction and operating licenses were issued separately, often leading to required changes in design or construction as the plants were being built.

The NRC is reviewing 12 COLs to operate 20 nuclear units.

Passive Safety Features Allow Automatic Shutdowns

Another significant change is the modularization of the new nuclear plants. Shaw is building modules in Lake Charles, a., which it is shipping to the Vogtle site. The new nuclear designs also contain passive safety features, which allow for automatic shutdown without onsite power and very little additional water.

The Department of Energy and the Vogtle owners are negotiating the terms of an $8.33 billion loan guarantee for the plant, which Fanning said he expects will close in the second quarter of this year.

In addition to Southern, only South Carolina Gas and Electric is moving forward with significant preliminary work for new reactors -- two AP1000s at its V.C. Summer site in Jenkinsville, S.C.