For the first time since the 1970s, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission has announced a step that it once took routinely: appointing an inspector for a new reactor construction project.

For the first time since the 1970s, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission has announced a step that it once took routinely: appointing an inspector for a new reactor construction project.

Watts_Bar_2With 17 applications in hand from companies that want to build 26 reactors, the agency is likely to name a lot more inspectors; it also expects five more applicants in the next few years.

Is this the long-awaited renaissance of the nuclear construction business, after years of being moribund?

Certainly, some crucial ingredients are falling into place. Nuclear power provides 70 percent of the nation’s carbon-free electricity, important at a time when environmentalists track carbon in the atmosphere the way baby boomers check their cholesterol levels. And while Congress has not agreed on setting a price on carbon emissions, important people say we need more low-carbon power. President Obama said in his State of the Union address that it was time to build “a new generation of safe, clean nuclear power plants in this country,” and his budget plan would triple the pool of loan guarantees available for construction, to $57.5 billion.

Near Augusta, Ga., where the Southern Company opened its Vogtle 1 and 2 reactors in 1987 and 1989, workers have cleared away storage sheds and are preparing a site for construction of units 3 and 4. Vogtle received the first loan guarantees, $8.3 billion, under a program enacted in 2005; the five years that have passed are an indication of the pace of the renaissance.

Yet, undeniably, there is progress. Parts have been ordered from as far away as Italy and Japan, and there are stirrings in the supply chain here, suggesting that, while the United States can no longer manufacture all the key components, it can at least contribute to a global system. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission has approved the Vogtle site, and a legion of its engineers and those at Westinghouse, the designer, are hashing out details before a new kind of license can be issued — one that will allow cookie-cutter copies of the reactor around the country. Generic approvals for other designs are at various stages.

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Source: The New York Times
Photo: U.S. NRC