The headlines should come somewhere between December and March 2012 when the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, if all goes as expected, will okay building up to four new nuclear reactors.

The licenses for two Westinghouse AP1000 reactors at Southern Co.’s Plant Vogtle in Georgia, followed quickly by two more at SCANA’s Summer station in South Carolina, will be the first granted since the 1970s.

NRC’s approvals are “critical” to show Wall Street that the nuclear revival is “real,” said Christine Todd Whitman, former Environmental Protection Agency head and co-chair of CASEnergy, a coalition of business, labor, and advocacy groups. In the balance are not just the four reactors, but the fate of two dozen more awaiting NRC licensing.

Faced with growing obstacles to coal plants, volatile natural gas prices and greenhouse gas worries, utilities started seriously considering new nuclear last decade. They had quit buying reactors after the 1970s, when energy prices spiked with oil embargos, electric demand growth flat-lined, inflation-bloated project costs flew out of control, and the Three Mile Island-2 accident raised urgent questions about nuclear safety.

But in the 1990s, reactor ownership was consolidated and operations markedly improved, making nuclear profitable. By 2005, the Energy Policy Act included production tax credits and loan guarantees for the first few new units. The NRC votes on Vogtle and Summer are the first results.

The last remaining hurdle for those two is a separate NRC approval of the Westinghouse design, confronting last-minute questions about its structural resilience in earthquakes. That vote is before commission now.

Keep Calm And Carry On

Whitman said that as she speaks to groups in the wake of the Fukushima Daiichi disaster, she has heard questions about nuclear safety – but “not panic.” People “want to know what’s being done…they are rightfully concerned,” she said, but polls show around 60% of Americans still support nuclear in their energy future.

Marvin Fertel, CEO of the Nuclear Energy Institute, said the media coverage of Fukushima raised questions last spring, but now that most radiation studies show very low public exposures and the plants are slowly being controlled, his experts have trouble finding media interested in discussing safety issues.

One plus for new nuclear is new jobs. Both the Vogtle and Summer sites will employ thousands of construction workers, as well as hundreds of operational personnel when the units start up 2016-19. Fertel said that, while the largest reactor components have to be forged overseas since no facilities exist in the US, most of the multi-billion dollar projects are sourced here.

In addition, 35-40% of US nuclear workers across the country will become eligible for retirement in the next five years, Whitman said, and utilities are working with community colleges and universities to find replacements for jobs throughout their existing plants.

CASEnergy organized a minority business roundtable this year to get the word out about nuclear opportunities, and drew interest from nearly every major national group, Whitman said.

Murkier Down The Road

While Vogtle and Summer may move ahead, the fate of another two dozen units, lined up in NRC’s 3-4 year licensing process, is hazy. The poor economy has limited power demand and shale discoveries have depressed natural gas prices, putting the financial case for new plants in question. Among the applicants pursuing licenses, which are valid for 20 years, are Dominion Resources, Duke Energy, Progress Energy, and Florida Power & Light.

Union of Concerned Scientists nuclear safety expert David Lochbaum said the natural gas boom gives applicants “the luxury to wait and see” how the first two projects fare. If they go well, he thinks more operators will begin building. In the meantime, they can meet demand growth with cheaper gas.

Fertel also thinks utilities want to see how long gas prices, historically volatile, stay low. In the next decade, he said, aging coal and nuclear plants plus some price on carbon will force decisions.

More Expensive Not To

But one US operator has been building all along, and asserts nuclear remains an economic option. The Tennessee Valley Authority’s nuclear program went through a management collapse and resurrection in the late 1980s, and brought the last US plant, Watts Bar-1 in Tennessee, on line in 1996.

In 2002, TVA undertook a five-year, $1.8 billion rehabilitation of its oldest reactor, restoring it to service in 2007. Now TVA is in a five-year, $2.5 billion project to finish the partly built Watts Bar-2. In August, TVA decided to finish unit 1 at the other construction site, Bellefonte in Alabama, at an estimated cost of $4.9 billion.

That’s still well below the cost of starting over. Southern Co.’s latest estimate for the two Vogtle units exceeds $14 billion, while SCE&G’s official estimate for Summer is $9.8 billion, but that’s without financing and transmission costs. Proponents argue the high up-front costs are offset by 60 years of low operating costs, and so far regulators in Georgia and South Carolina have agreed and approved rate increases to take the projects forward.