One of the U.K.'s top nuclear officials said today that she was told the U.S. will okay plans to build the first nuclear power plants since the accident at Three Mile Island nearly three decades ago. Lady Barbara Thomas Judge, chair of the U.K. Atomic Energy Authority, said that the chair of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission informed her that the NRC will approve three applications for new nuclear reactors that it's currently considering.

"Dale Klein told me that those three nuclear applications will be approved," she told the State of the Planet conference at Columbia University today, the 29th anniversary of the accident at Three Mile Island in Middletown, Pa. (Subsequently, a reactor at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant in the then Ukrainian Soviet Republic melted down in April 1986 in what would become the worst nuclear power accident in history, spreading radiation as far away as North America and leading to the evacuation and resettlement of more than 336,000 people).

"The politics is changing," she added, noting growing enthusiasm for nuclear power as the clean alternative to coal-burning plants. Even some environmentalists have begun to embrace nuclear power, because of its potential to reduce the greenhouse emissions that are blamed for global warming.

But critics question the safety of nuclear power, citing such concerns as the potential for catastrophic meltdowns, their potential vulnerability to terrorists, the lack of workable evacuation plans in the event of accidents as well as the problem of dealing with radioactive waste.

Among the pending applications: a plan to build two additional boiling-water reactors at the South Texas Project power plant near Houston. As many as 29 other reactors could be built, according to Bill Borchardt, director of the NRC's Office of New Reactors.

But neither the South Texas facility nor the applications for new reactors at Calvert Cliffs in Maryland and the Shearon Harris nuclear plant outside Raleigh, N.C., have completed the NRC's long design safety and feasibility evaluation, which could take years to complete. The commission does not expect to complete its review of the new reactors at the South Texas plant before 2011, according to NRC spokesman Scott Burnell.

"Once you build the power plants, it just keeps producing energy," Judge said, noting the potential benefits of electricity generation from nuclear fission. "It is part of what we have to do to deal with energy security and climate change."