By Tom Doggett
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Southern Co passed environmental review for two nuclear reactors it wants to build at its Vogtle nuclear station in Georgia. U.S. regulators said on Friday, but that doesn't mean U.S. nuclear energy is in the clear after the crisis in Japan.
The Nuclear Regulatory Commission issued its final environmental impact statement on Southern's reactors, but the NRC must still vote on issuing the license.
Some U.S. lawmakers have been calling for a delay in approving new U.S. nuclear power plants in response to the crisis at Japan's Fukushima nuclear power station.
NRC chairman Gregory Jaczko recently told Congress there were no plans to change the agency's schedule because of the problems in Japan.
Jaczko has said the five members of the commission would likely vote during the fourth quarter of this year on Southern's license to build the two reactors.
Southern said it expects final NRC approval of the project later this year. If the operating licenses are approved by the NRC, the two new reactors would come online in 2016 and 2017.
"We don't anticipate any events in Japan to impact the construction schedule or the company's ability to stay on budget for the new units," said Southern spokeswoman Beth Thomas.
The NRC's action does not mean events in Japan will not have a slowing effect on the U.S. nuclear industry.
"It's not the type of milestone that I would consider a vote of confidence" for U.S. nuclear, said Christine Tezak, energy and environmental analyst at Robert W. Baird & Co. "I would say that it indicates that this project is still on track on its own merits."
Tezak added: "We do not know what -- if anything -- will be required of new unit applications in the post-Japan world."
Paul Patterson, energy analyst at Glenrock Associates LLC, also said supporters of U.S. nuclear should not read too much into the NRC's decision on Southern.
"I don't think one should come to any conclusion with respect to how the NRC will respond eventually to the situation in Japan," he said. "We're very early in this process.
The NRC said its licensing decision for the Southern reactors will be based on the final environmental impact statement issued today and the final safety evaluation report that is still being compiled by agency staff.
The Energy Department has conditionally awarded an $8.3 billion loan guarantee to Southern to help finance two reactors, which would be built next to two existing reactors at the company's Vogtle nuclear power station located 26 miles southeast of Augusta, Georgia.
Under the program, the federal government would step in and repay up to 80 percent of the loan if Southern defaulted on the construction financing.
Each of the reactors would have a generating capacity of 1,100 megawatts, enough for each to provide electricity to about 275,000 homes in Georgia, according to Southern.
The company plans to use Westinghouse's AP1000 reactors, which the NRC is expected to approve modifications to by late summer or early autumn. Westinghouse is a unit of Toshiba Corp
The AP1000 design is seen as safer than the reactors at the Fukushima plant in Japan, because water to cool the core in the AP1000 comes for above the reactor and flows down.
The Japanese reactors pipe water in from below and pump it up to cool the core. In the event a coolant pipe breaks, the AP1000 is designed to shut down safely without relying on electricity, diesel generators or pumps.
Instead, the reactor relies on gravity to circulate water and compressed gas to keep the core from overheating.
(Reporting by Tom Doggett; Editing by Alden Bentley and David Gregorio)