The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission has issued an early site permit for two new reactors at Southern Co.'s (SO) Vogtle nuclear plant in Georgia, Southern said Wednesday.

The permit, a key regulatory hurdle, allows Southern to begin preliminary construction work at the site. The permit's issuance means Southern's proposal has met certain environmental and safety standards.

"This is an important step for the Vogtle project, because the demand for electricity in the Southeast, and particularly in Georgia, will continue to grow," said Mike Garrett, president and CEO of Southern Co. utility Georgia Power.

The Vogtle project, expected to cost about $14 billion, is the fourth to receive an early-site permit from the NRC. Southern filed its permit application in 2006. The company has also filed for a combined operating license to build and operate the 1,100-megawatt reactors, which Southern expects to enter service in 2016 and 2017.

The Vogtle proposal is on a short list of nuclear projects that the Department of Energy is considering for loan guarantees.

-By Christine Buurma, Dow Jones Newswires; 212-416-2143;