The owner of three nuclear power plants in Salem County plans to get paperwork moving to build a fourth in May.

PSE&G, owner of the Salem 1 and 2 and Hope Creek plants, will submit an early-site permit application to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission for what would be New Jersey's fifth nuclear power plant and the first built here since 1986.

The application does not obligate the company to build a plant but merely identifies a location and explains why it is secure and environmentally suitable, said Joe Delmar, spokesman for PSE&G.

The company is sole owner of Hope Creek and majority owner of Salem 1 and Salem 2, all in Lower Alloways Creek Township.

"It does not designate what kind of reactor technology it will use. We don't know if it will be one unit or two or what its megawatt output will be," he said.

The NRC usually takes about two years to approve early-site permits. Then the company would request an operating and construction license. PSE&G also would have to get approval from the Department of Environmental Protection and the township, all of which could take as long as 13 years, Delmar said.

PSE&G first discussed the proposal publicly in 2007. Since then the United States has seen a growing interest in nuclear energy as an alternative to fossil fuels.

The U.S. Department of Energy in February offered $8.5 billion in loan guarantees for the construction of two nuclear plants in Georgia under a 2005 law promoting carbon-free energy. Like New Jersey, Georgia has four nuclear plants.

Federal loan guarantees for new plants are key since plants are so costly. Delmar said a new nuclear plant would cost an estimated $14 billion.

PSE&G has not decided whether it will build a new plant. The application simply keeps the company's options open.

The company is hoping the latest wave of nuclear energy will make the design of plants more uniform, Delmar said. The NRC is also hoping to standardize nuclear plant designs.

"The way plants were built years ago, no two plants are alike," Delmar said. "The NRC is looking at certified designs - four or five designs you can build - to try to get some uniformity across the industry. This will lead to better pricing and also the compatibility of components so one piece of equipment works in a dozen plants around the country. You don't have to do retrofits on components."

Nuclear power remains a controversial topic in New Jersey.

Anti-nuclear activist Norm Cohen of the group Unplug Salem said there are ample reasons that make Artificial Island a bad place to site a new plant. Home to three other plants, it already is the nation's second-largest nuclear complex.

"There's no foundation, no bedrock. If there was an earthquake like we had in Chile, it would be a disaster," Cohen said. "Secondly, they eat up a certain amount of wetlands to build a new nuclear plant."

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And with no immediate plans to designate a national repository for spent fuel as was once proposed for Yucca Mountain, Nev., the Salem County complex would have to store even more radioactive material on site, he said.

"Without Yucca Mountain, Lower Alloways Creek is a nuclear waste dump forever," Cohen said.

But the proposal has local support. Energy Receipts Taxes paid by PSE&G pay for all municipal services in Lower Alloways Creek, which has no local purpose tax.

Mayor Ellen B. Pompper said her family, like many others in Salem County, has financial ties to the power plant. Her husband and son work for PSE&G.

Far from being a scary prospect, nuclear power is ingrained in the daily life of the township, she said.

"I really believe that. Salem County is accustomed to it. Most people do not think about it. They take it for granted," she said. "You see the cooling tower at a great distance. That's how we can tell how windy it is that day."

Today, few people from the public even attend the regular NRC meetings in the township, she said.

Pompper said the county would welcome the jobs associated with building a $14 billion plant. The only real concern is where the company would store its spent fuel, she said.

"The company was promised a national repository for spent fuel. That would be our biggest issue," she said.