BAY CITY — After reaching another regulatory milestone, South Texas Project officials say additional financing is the biggest obstacle to doubling the number of units at the site.

The Advisory Committee on Reactor Safeguards, upon conducting an independent review of the project’s safety, recommended the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission approve the company’s application to build two reactors.

“This is an essential part of the process,” said Mark McBurnett, CEO of Nuclear Innovation North America, the project’s developer. “It’s a major milestone for us.”

The committee conducts the “extremely thorough” review in sections, or chapters, during more than 20 meetings, he said. It includes thousands of staff hours.

“We’ve been meeting with them for several years,” McBurnett said.

The plant is Matagorda County’s largest employer, with about 1,200 people on the payroll. The new units could create about 800 additional jobs, project officials have said.

The expansion is expected to cost more than $5 billion and would generate an additional 2,700 megawatts, effectively doubling its current output.

NRC commissioners must now issue their final Safety Evaluation Report and host a final hearing.

“With that approval, the license would be issued,” McBurnett said.

Commercial operation had been anticipated to begin in about 2016, pending federal approval, but the licensing issues with the NRC delayed the expansion.

The project received its Final Environmental Impact statement in 2011 from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission.

McBurnett said the project’s biggest challenge is finding additional funding.

“We’re in the position now where the market is not really supportive of building new nuclear,” he said. “We expect it will be at some point.”

He said lower prices in the gas market have contributed to this trend.

One of the financiers of the project, NRG Energy Inc., has not committed any more capital investment toward it, he said. The corporation had been reviewing the events behind the nuclear disaster stemming from the earthquake in Japan in 2011.

As they continue acquiring regulatory approvals, officials are also developing a financing package to present to potential investors, McBurnett said. He is confident the state’s power needs make the project a certainty.

“It’s like I try and tell people, the question is not if it’s going to be built, it’s when is it going to be built,” he said.

Once the additional financing has been secured, McBurnett said 2024 might be the soonest the site becomes operational.

Lance Reaves is a reporter for The Facts. Contact him at 979-237-0154.

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