The nation's first new nuclear power plant in a generation won approval Thursday as federal regulators voted to grant a license for two new reactors in Georgia.
The Nuclear Regulatory Commission voted 4-1 to approve Atlanta-based Southern Co.'s request to build two nuclear reactors at its Vogtle site south of Augusta.
The vote clears the way for officials to issue an operating license for the reactors, which could begin operating as soon as 2016 and 2017.
The NRC last approved construction of a nuclear plant in 1978, a year before a partial meltdown of the Three Mile Island nuclear plant in Pennsylvania raised fears of a radiation release and brought new reactor orders to a halt.
NRC Chairman Gregory Jaczko voted against the Vogtle license, saying he wanted a binding commitment from the company that it would make safety changes prompted by the March 2011 nuclear disaster in Japan.
"We've given them a license. They have not given us any commitment they will make these changes in the future," Mr. Jaczko said.
The Japan earthquake had a magnitude of 9.0, more than 1,000 times as powerful as the 5.8 temblor that hit Virginia and the Middle Atlantic states last August. There has not been an earthquake with a magnitude of 6.0 or greater in the U.S. east of the Mississippi River since 1886.
The meltdown at the Fukushima Dai-ichi plant led to a series of recommendations by the NRC to improve safety at the 104 commercial nuclear reactors in the U.S. The changes are intended to make the plants better prepared for incidents they were not initially designed to handle, such as prolonged power blackouts or damage to multiple reactors at the same time.
Despite his opposition to the license, Mr. Jaczko called the vote "historic" and a culmination of years of work by Southern Co. and the NRC.
Southern Company Chairman and CEO Thomas A. Fanning called the NRC vote "a monumental accomplishment for Southern Company, Georgia Power, our partners and the nuclear industry."
Mr. Fanning said the company was "committed to bringing these units online to deliver clean, safe and reliable energy to our customers."
"The project is on track, and our targets related to cost and schedule are achievable," he said.
President Obama has offered the Vogtle project $8.3 billion in federal loan guarantees as part of its pledge to expand nuclear power.
Mr. Obama and other proponents say greater use of nuclear power could cut the nation's reliance on fossil fuels and create energy without producing emissions blamed for global warming. A new government permit process strongly encourages utilities to use pre-approved reactor designs rather than building custom models, a strategy intended to make construction easier and less expensive.
The NRC approved a new reactor design for the Vogtle plant in December. Utility companies in Florida and the Carolinas also plan new reactors that use the same design by Westinghouse Electric Co.
Marvin Fertel, president of the Nuclear Energy Institute, an industry lobbying group, said the NRC vote "sounds a clarion call to the world that the United States recognizes the importance of expanding nuclear energy as a key component of a low-carbon energy future that is central to job creation, diversity of electricity supply and energy security."