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Toshiba Corp.’s Westinghouse Electric has won majority support for the design of its AP1000 reactor from the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, even as the members feuded publicly over the panel’s leadership.

The NRC issued a notice Wednesday that the third of five commissioners voted to certify the design Southern Co. and Scana Corp. plan to use for new units at existing U.S. nuclear plants.

The action opens the door for a new generation of U.S. nuclear plants, Dale Klein, an ex-NRC chairman, said Wednesday. The AP1000 also has the potential to be a “very dominant player in worldwide nuclear activities,” said Klein, associate vice chancellor for research at the University of Texas.

Commissioner William Magwood voted Dec. 6 to certify the design for the AP1000, the commission said. Approval by NRC Chairman Gregory Jaczko and Commissioner George Apostolakis was announced earlier this month.

“It is a very encouraging first step on a lengthy road to the operation of new energy facilities,” Steve Kerekes, a spokesman for the Nuclear Energy Institute, a Washington-based industry group, said in an email.

The full commission hasn’t scheduled a vote on the final certification rule, a step before companies can win licenses to build the AP1000 reactor designed by the unit of Toshiba. The NRC hasn’t issued a construction license for a U.S. nuclear plant since a partial meltdown at the Three Mile Island facility in Pennsylvania in 1979.

Magwood, who joined Jaczko in backing the AP1000, told a House committee Wednesday that the chairman had engaged in “extreme behavior” by verbally abusing female employees. Jaczko bullied staff and created a chilled work environment at the agency, all four of the chairman’s colleagues told the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee that is examining discord within the agency.

“Many of these instances that they’re referring to have been misconstrued,” Jaczko, 41, told lawmakers. “I’ve listened very carefully to the concerns of my colleagues.” He also has said the commission’s majority “loosened the agency’s safety standards” over his opposition.

Some of the strife has concerned what steps may be needed to improve the safety of U.S. reactors after the March 11 earthquake and tsunami triggered meltdowns and radiation leaks at Tokyo Electric Power Co.’s Fukushima No. 1 plant.

Jaczko and Magwood voted to move ahead with the AP1000 while reserving the option of requiring added safeguards later.

But according to a November report commissioned by the environmental groups Friends of the Earth, based in San Francisco, and the North Carolina Waste Awareness and Reduction Network, the AP1000’s design is inadequate to withstand potentially high pressure inside the reactor. The environmental groups have vowed to block the AP1000’s construction in the courts unless the NRC reconsiders the design.

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