LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:
Nuclear energy used to be seen as the wave of the future and the way to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. But last week, a utility in South Carolina decided to stop working on a major nuclear project there. It's a sign of the times as Molly Samuel of WABE in Atlanta reports.
MOLLY SAMUEL, BYLINE: Five years ago, you still heard this kind of talk from public officials - in this case, then Energy Secretary Steven Chu.
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STEVEN CHU: Resurgence of America's nuclear industry starts here in Georgia.
SAMUEL: He stopped by Georgia Power's Plant Vogtle near Georgia's border with South Carolina to tout the construction of two new reactors as a critical part of President Obama's energy strategy. They're the first next generation nuclear reactors to be built in the country in three decades. The partial meltdown at Pennsylvania's Three Mile Island in 1979 had stopped the industry from expanding. By the early 2000s, that accident and the meltdown at Chernobyl were distant memories. Paul Murphy is with the law firm Gowling WLG. He specializes in the nuclear industry.
PAUL MURPHY: On top of that, people were projecting significant growth in power demand, energy demand.
SAMUEL: Nuclear construction is expensive and takes a long time. But once it's up and running, it's cheap, reliable electricity. And it doesn't generate the greenhouse gas emissions that contribute to climate change. So nuclear power seemed like a good idea. Utilities around the country started applying to the federal government for permission to build new reactors.
MARILYN BROWN: I thought that it was going to be a very good thing for the Southern economy.
SAMUEL: That's Marilyn Brown, a public policy professor at Georgia Tech. In Georgia and South Carolina, power companies got to work building a new type of reactor that was supposed to be safer and cheaper. All good? Not quite. First, came the global financial crisis that flattened the demand for electricity.
BROWN: Then the boom in unconventional natural gas occurred.
SAMUEL: Brown's talking about fracking, which flooded the market with cheap natural gas. Renewable energy, especially wind power, also got more competitive.
BROWN: And that meant that it really, if you were to go back and reappraise the nuclear investment, they probably would not have been approved or might not have been approved.
SAMUEL: Both the Georgia and South Carolina projects racked up billions in cost overruns and delays. Then earlier this year, Westinghouse, the company building the nuclear units, went bankrupt. Westinghouse blamed the high construction costs at those two plants. It was too much for the South Carolina utilities, which scrapped the project this week. Stan Wise is the chairman of the Georgia Public Service Commission which regulates Georgia Power.
STAN WISE: Now Vogtle's the last kid on the block.
SAMUEL: Georgia Power customers have been paying for the new reactors out of their monthly power bills since 2011. Wise says Georgia Power is in a better financial situation than the South Carolina utilities.
WISE: I'm still a proponent of nuclear. I'm going to keep my powder dry in the coming weeks and months as we decide whether or not to continue this project.
SAMUEL: Georgia Power says it will propose whether or not to finish Vogtle later this month. Marilyn Brown at Georgia Tech says she hopes that plant Vogtle's completed.
BROWN: If these plans can't be continued, then where would you build the next one? Is that the demise of the industry?
SAMUEL: For now, she says, America's nuclear renaissance appears to be stalled. For NPR News, I'm Molly Samuel in Atlanta.