Nuclear reactors approved for U.S. construction for the first time since 1978S

Fukushima may still be reeling from last year's nuclear disaster, but a global interest in nuclear power looks to be on the up and up — even here in the U.S.

Yesterday, for the first time in over 30 years, the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission gave the nod on the construction of two brand new nuclear reactors at Georgia's Plant Vogtle. The approval has been dubbed "the strongest signal yet" that the thirty-year hiatus on nuclear plant construction may finally be coming to an end. Could this be the beginning of a renaissance in nuclear energy production?

Probably not... at least not for now (or, rather, at least not here in the States). In fact, the reactors that were approved yesterday — which, if all goes according to plan, should both be finished by 2017 — are liable to be the last ones built in the U.S. until some time after 2020. Scott Peterson, vice president of the Nuclear Energy Institute, prefers not to call it a "nuclear renaissance," but rather a "first wave" for new reactors; in other words: it will be a while before it becomes clear whether or not the NRC's approval signals a true revival to the nuclear industry.

The new reactor designs are the first to incorporate passive safety features (i.e. features that require little-to-no human intervention, and do not depend on electricity to operate). Many of these features have been implemented in direct response to "lessons learned" from Fukushima, like water that is automatically released to cool the reactor core in the event of a meltdown.

While there's definitely a strong anti-nuclear voice (at least nine national, state and regional groups intend to challenge the approval in federal court), only one out of the five members of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission who voted to give the go ahead on the reactors' construction was concerned enough over safety to vote against the approval.

Truth be told, nuclear's biggest challenges may be economic ones. Demand for electricity in the U.S. has leveled out in recent years, and prices on natural gas — which is also used to generate electricity — are currently low, making natural gas-burning turbines a more affordable option than nuclear power plants.

Read more on Scientific American and NPR.

Top image shows one of the new reactor vessel bottom heads being assembled. Photo by Southern Co.