The head of the lead lobbying group for the nuclear power industry today downplayed regulators' safety concerns about the designs of two nuclear reactors expected to be the first built in the United States in some 30 years.
Nuclear Energy Institute CEO and president Marvin Fertel said "we have tremendous confidence" that two new reactors planned for the Alvin W. Vogtle Electric Generating Plant in Burke, Ga., "will be basically our poster child for how to do it right."
Fertel, who spoke at an NEI analyst briefing in New York this morning, said concerns raised by the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission about the reactors last year were being resolved and called them "technical" and not significant. The planned reactors, he said, will be in operation between 2016 and 2017.
President Obama announced Monday that the Vogtle plant would receive $8.33 billion in loan guarantees from the Department of Energy -- the first nuclear power plant to receive the guarantees under a DOE program enacted in 2005.
The plant is home to two existing reactors and some construction has already begun on the site to make way for the new units. The guarantees, conditioned on construction approval from the NRC, will help keep electricity rates lower for customers of Southern Company, which owns the Vogtle plant, Southern CEO David Ratcliffe told reporters today.
"People think, 'Well you're giving it to people who don't need the money.' The fact of the matter is our customers need lower costs and that's the benefit that this loan guaranty provides," Ratcliffe said.
The federal loan guarantees mean financing for the reactors will be at a lower cost, saving millions of dollars that would otherwise be paid out to service debt on the project.
The nuclear industry has promoted the two reactors as leading the way in reviving the country's development of new nuclear power plants -- efforts beset over the years by financial challenges, public blowback in the Wake of the Three Mile Island meltdown and regulatory hurdles. The NRC, which has final say over whether new plants get built, hasn't approved construction on a new reactor since 1978.
The Vogtle project has received early permits that other 12 nuclear power plant proposals under active review by the NRC have not. Still, the commission has been hesitant to single the project out as a front-runner for first approval and the commission has raised concerns about the design of the planned Vogtle reactors.
As ABC News' The Blotter reported, the NRC in October called on the reactors' manufacturer, Westinghouse Electric Co., to make modifications to the design of the shield building for its AP1000 reactor. The steel and concrete structure is supposed to protect nuclear reactors from earthquakes, hurricanes, tornadoes and even the impact from airplane crashes.
"The NRC has determined that the proposed design of the shield building will require modifications in some specific areas to ensure its ability to perform its safety function," the NRC's letter to Westinghouse said.
In an October press release, the commission said that Westinghouse "has not demonstrated that certain structural components of the revised AP1000 shield building can withstand design basis loads."
The commission and NEI's Fertel differ on where the shield issue stands today.
"NRC concerns with the shield building have been resolved to my knowledge," Fertel said in response to a reporter's question.
Fertel said Westinghouse had modified the reactor's design to comply with the aircraft impact specs -- a new requirement for nuclear power plants -- and that the same design is being used in Japan.
"The problem is that the NRC had not looked at this, did not have analysis and technology for reviewing it, so I don't think the technical issues are significant technical issues and I think they are being resolved quite well right now," he said.
But in an e-mail this afternoon, the NRC said the shield building is still under review.
"We've been meeting with Westinghouse to work toward resolving our concerns over the shield building, but we cannot say those concerns are fully resolved," a NRC spokesman said in an e-mail. "Westinghouse is expected to submit a report next month responding to the detailed concerns we raised last fall."
NRC spokesman Scott Burnell told ABCNews.com on Thursday that it's no sure bet which part of the country will see a new nuclear reactor first.
"It's a horse race," he told ABCNews.com. "We're still on the second turn. We're barely getting into the back stretch. There's still a lot of work ahead for all of the applicants in terms of the review work we have to do and the milestones that have to be met."
Burnell said that the commission initially expected to complete its review of the Burke reactors' design in 2011, but the shield issue throws that projected end date into question.
"It is reasonable to say that resolving the shield building issue certainly could have an effect on the ultimate end point on reviewing the design," he said.