US power companies, faced with soaring natural gas prices and capacity shortfalls in much of the country, are gearing up to make preliminary applications to build new nuclear power plants, the first in over two decades, according to a pro-nuclear industry body.

A spokesman for the Washington based Nuclear Energy Institute said a number of applications to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) for early site permits was 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 has an American utility sought to license and gone on to operate a new nuclear plant. Only a few years ago, industry analysts were suggesting 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. Meanwhile vice-president Dick Cheney has said that the energy policy panel he is heading would devote a chapter of its report to the future of nuclear power in the USA.