WASHINGTON -- Federal safety officials voted 4-to-1 to approve the first nuclear reactor construction permit in almost 35 years, overriding U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission Chairman Greg Jaczko.
The commission's vote on Thursday will allow Southern Company subsidiary Georgia Power to expand operations at its plant in eastern Georgia, paving the way for the construction of two new nuclear power reactors at its Vogtle site. The last such project to be approved was in 1978.
Chairman Jaczko in his dissenting vote cited concerns stemming from Fukushima, underscoring long-standing tensions on the commission over the regulatory response to Japan's 2011 nuclear power disaster.
"I cannot support issuing this license as if Fukushima never happened," Jaczko said after the vote at the commission's headquarters in Rockville, Md. Jaczko had requested a binding commitment that the Fukushima enhancements currently planned would be enacted before the facility begins operations. Southern Company refused to meet this stipulation.
In a conference call with reporters on Thursday, Tom Fanning, CEO of Southern Company, sought to minimize any differences with the chairman, promising "anything we learn from Fukushima we will bring to bear."
The project, which is estimated at $14 billion, could begin operations as soon as 2016. The project is expected to take roughly ten years to build and will create 800 permanent jobs, according to Southern Company's estimates.
Thursday's vote moves the project one step closer to securing an $8.33 billion loan guarantee from the Department of Energy, a deal that's been in the works since February of 2010. The Department's loan guarantee to the now-bankrupt and much maligned Solyndra, by comparison, was just $527 million.
Critics have been quick to question the fiscal prudence of asking taxpayers to take on such enormous upfront costs, arguing the DOE has offered insufficient "public disclosure" on the particulars of the loan guarantee.
“Given some of the lessons learned and political games developing from the Solyndra loan guarantee case, it's unacceptable and inconsistent that the much larger Vogtle loan isn't getting more intense scrutiny when the potential risk to taxpayers is much greater,” said Stephen A. Smith, executive director for the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy, in a statement. "The DOE needs to operate with more transparency now -- not less."
The vote also underscores ideological divisions between the commissioners and the chairman, who, in the wake of Fukushima, sought to implement stricter safety standards that have been opposed by the four members. HuffPost reported on an earlier attempt to oust the chairman, noting the organizer of the attempted coup had previously consulted for the firm operating the Fukushima nuclear facility.
Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.) on Thursday decried the commission's "cavalier disregard for the NRC's mission of public safety," noting the commission had failed to implement the safety recommendations of its own technical experts in the wake of the Fukushima disaster in Japan. These recommendations, Markey said, should have been made mandatory.
"Today, the NRC abdicated its duty to protect public health and safety just to make construction faster and cheaper for the nuclear industry," said Rep. Markey, top Democrat on the House Natural Resources Committee and a senior member of the House Energy and Commerce Committee. "While four NRC Commissioners continue to slow-walk the implementation of the Fukushima safety upgrades, today they have fast-tracked the construction of two nuclear reactors whose shield building could 'shatter like a glass cup' if impacted by an earthquake or other natural or man-made impact."
He isn't the only one worried about the safety of nuclear power in the event of a disaster. A coalition of nine environmental groups, including Friends of the Earth, the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy and Blue Ridge Environmental Defense League, plan to file a lawsuit next week in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit arguing that the NRC is violating federal law by issuing the license without considering the important lessons from Fukushima.
No nuclear power plants have been built in the U.S. since the partial meltdown the so-called Three Mile Island, a nuclear power plant in Pennsylvania that in 1979 was the site of the most significant accident in the country's history of nuclear energy.
"The technology that we're dealing with today is the newest and safest we've ever had," Fanning said. "It is completely different than what we faced back in the 1970s."