Feb. 9, 2012 -- The construction of two new nuclear reactors won federal approval today, making them the first to be built in the U.S. in the decades since the partial meltdown at Three Mile Island in 1979.
The U.S. Nuclear and Regulatory Commission gave the go-ahead to Southern Company of Atlanta to add two reactors to its existing pair at the Vogtle Plant in Waynesboro, Ga.
Unit 3 is projected to begin operating in 2016 and Unit 4 in 2017.
Tom Fanning, CEO of Southern Company, heralded the move as a "major step" at a news conference.
"The two new units at Vogtle will set a new standard of safety and efficiency in nuclear energy," he said, adding that the company's budget and goals are on schedule.
Only one member of the five-person U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, Chairman Gregory Jaczko, dissented, citing safety concerns following a triple meltdown last year at the Fukushima Daiichi plant in Japan.
"Significant safety enhancements have already been recommended as a result of learning the lessons from Fukushima, and there is still more work ahead of us," Jackzki said in a statement. "Knowing this, I cannot support issuing these licenses as if Fukushima never happened."
Scott Burnell, a spokesman for the NRC, told ABCNews.com that Southern Company will have to meet a very specific list of safety criteria and standards set forth for the operation of new nuclear reactors in a post-Three Mile Island era.
"The license that we will be issuing includes both permission to build the reactor and conditional permission to operate the reactor, and only if the acceptance criteria is met," Burnell said.
During the review process, Burnell said, the community was given "several opportunities" to voice its opinions about the environmental impact of the project.
The two new units represent a $14 billion capital investment in Georgia, according to a release issued by the Southern Company.
Peter Bradford, who was a member of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission during the time of the Three Mile Island crisis, said building the new reactors wasn't a reasonable economic decision.
"The problem has never been construction permits," Bradford told ABCNews.com. "Investors just don't want to take the risk."
There are currently 104 nuclear reactors in the U.S.