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The Associated Press March 26, 2012, 4:15PM ET

US regulators set vote on new SCE&G nuke reactors

Federal regulators are expected this week to approve a proposal to build two nuclear reactors at a site near Columbia, a decision that would make it just the second nuclear project to receive federal approval in a generation.

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission is set to vote Friday on the request by South Carolina Electric & Gas, a unit of SCANA corp., to build two 1,100-megawatt reactors at the V.C. Summer Nuclear Station near Jenkinsville, about 25 miles northwest of Columbia.

Officials say the reactors, which would be jointly owned and operated with state-owned utility Santee Cooper, will be needed to meet future power demand. The first is expected to generate power by 2016, with the second going online in 2019.

The twin reactors would be only the second nuclear project to receive federal approval in more than 30 years. Last month, the NRC voted to issue a permit to Atlanta-based Southern Co. to build and operate two new reactors at its Plant Vogtle site south of Augusta, Ga., the first such approval since 1978.

The last nuclear plant to start commercial operation was the Tennessee Valley Authority's Watts Bar plant in 1996. The last reactor to go online in South Carolina was the second of two reactors at the Catawba Nuclear Power Plant in August 1986, according to the U.S. Department of Energy.

If it goes through on Friday, the approval will mark the end of a years-long pursuit by SCE&G and Santee Cooper, which filed initial paperwork for the project in 2008. The state Public Service Commission approved the project the next year.

Last year, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers determined the proposed reactors wouldn't have any serious impacts on the environment, releasing a report that took into account input from several public meetings. A few months later, the NRC said the project had passed a safety inspection, in large part clearing the way for the reactors' final approval from the agency.

Both utilities have said their power customers will see increased bills to pay for the project. Santee Cooper's board has agreed to study rate needs for the next several years and will present those results later this year. SCE&G has said its customers can expect annual increases of about 2 percent each year through 2019.

Opponents have said the plants, with a $10 billion price tag, will cost too much for the electricity they will provide. Tom Clements of the Alliance for Nuclear Accountability says the slow-moving projects in Georgia and South Carolina show the government's reluctance to pursue nuclear power and its possible risks.

"These two projects are likely the only new reactor projects to move forward in the U.S., indicating that the much-touted nuclear renaissance has fizzled in the face of falling prices of natural gas, lower electricity demand and the impacts of the Fukushima nuclear disaster," Clements said Monday.

An NRC taskforce examining the nuclear crisis in Japan said licensing for the new AP1000 reactors should go forward because it would be better equipped to deal with a prolonged loss of power -- the problem that doomed the Fukushima Dai-ichi plant. But nuclear watchdogs have said the NRC should have studied the new reactors more closely in the wake of the Japan crisis, which occurred after a tsunami sent three reactors at the Fukushima Dai-ichi plant into meltdowns in the worst nuclear crisis since Chernobyl in 1986.

Federal regulators approved the Westinghouse Electric Co.-designed reactors in December, but Clements said he still worries the new design remains vulnerable to natural disaster.

"We believe that many safety issues remain concerning the AP1000 design and that it is very vulnerable in the face of an earthquake, which could destroy the cooling system," Clements said. "Neither the Vogtle or V.C. Summer project should move forward until the outstanding safety questions about the AP1000 design are resolved."


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