A spokesman for the Washington based Nuclear Energy Institute said applications to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) for early site permits were expected, some as early as next year.

Under the site permitting process, electric companies can ask the NRC to consider early environmental and siting issues for plants, which the NRC will then bank until investors decide whether to go ahead with the plant.

Not since 1973 have American utilities sought to license and gone on to open a new nuclear plant, especially after the 1979 Three Mile Island reactor accident. Only a few years ago, industry analysts also suggested that nuclear reactors would be shuttered under the economic pressures of electricity deregulation.

Instead, the country’s 103 reactors are still churning out power, and five have received 20 year license extensions from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. License renewal applications for another five reactors are pending before the NRC, and the owners of another 32 reactors are expected to apply for license renewal by 2005.