For the first time since 1978, the United States has approved the construction of nuclear reactors. While the decision could herald a new dawn for nuclear power there, the major growth in the sector is likely to be elsewhere.
The nuclear industry had been expecting a renaissance in the next few years, until a major setback occurred – last year's Fukushima Daiichi disaster in Japan. In the aftermath, Japan closed most of its reactors for safety tests, Germany announced it was abandoning nuclear and other countries elected to review their plans.
The situation may now be changing. On 9 February the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission issued a licence for Southern Company, an energy utility based in Atlanta, Georgia, to build a pair of reactors at its Vogtle site. No new reactors have been built in the US since before the Three Mile Island accident in Pennsylvania in 1979.
The Georgia plant will probably soon be followed by a second pair of reactors which the South Carolina Electric and Gas Company wants to build at its VC Summer Nuclear Station in Jenkinsville, subject to licences being granted. The Florida Power & Light Company also hopes to build two new reactors.
Passive safety system
The Fukushima plant overheated when last year's tsunami flooded the engines that powered its cooling pumps. By contrast the Georgia site, along with the other two US sites awaiting approval, will use new AP1000 reactors, built by Westinghouse. These are fitted with passive safety systems that need no power – for instance, a rooftop water tank that can keep the reactor cool for 72 hours.
The US decision suggests the nuclear renaissance may be back on track, though at a slower pace than first expected, according to Tim Abram of the University of Manchester, UK.
He says the real nuclear revival will be in emerging economies, not the US or Europe. "They will build numbers of plants that will dwarf anything we'll ever see in the UK."
China was the first country to commission AP1000 reactors, ordering two pairs. India is also forging ahead, with six reactors under construction to a different design from the AP1000, and more planned.
Abram suspects Japan will also end up building new reactors, despite the government's announcement last year that it would not. The country has almost no energy resources of its own, and has been forced to increase its imports of oil and gas massively over the last few months while its nuclear reactors remain idle. "They are living hand-to-mouth," Abram says.