A team of five energy companies -- Constellation Energy (NYSE:CEG), Exelon (NYSE:EXC), Southern (NYSE:SO), Entergy (NYSE:ETR), and the North America division of France's EDF International -- have joined forces with two nuclear reactor builders, General Electric (NYSE:GE) and Westinghouse Electric, to create a next-generation nuclear power plant in the U.S.

The consortium of seven intends to "test drive" a Combined Construction and Operating Licensing (COL) procedure first promulgated by the Department of Energy (DOE) in 1992 -- but never actually used. Apparently, 12 years later, the DOE has decided that it needs a guinea pig willing to undergo the arduous licensing process and prove that it is possible to obtain such a license.

Over the course of the next seven years, the consortium will spend a projected total of nearly $50 million to design a next-generation nuclear power plant and obtain a license to build and operate it. The consortium aims to submit its license application to the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (a government agency independent of the DOE) in 2008 and, with any luck, get a reply by... 2010. (Note to self: Next time you call the NRC and get put on hold, just hang up.)

If everything goes as planned, this project should yield some useful results. By finally showing how (and that) the "new" licensing system works, it should encourage companies to consider actually building some nuclear plants. Why? Because in the course of the license application process, the consortium will develop some pretty detailed information on the projected cost of building and operating a modern nuclear power plant, which should take some of the guesswork out of companies' cost/benefits analyses.

With any luck, reactors will eventually get built, which will expand the nation's energy resources and take strain off the seemingly default energy source of choice: natural gas. With more energy sources to choose from, the price of natural gas should fall. That may not be great news for investors in natural gas producers such as, for example, ExxonMobil (NYSE:XOM). But if alternative fuel supplies increase and natural gas becomes more affordable, it could be very good news indeed for natural gas "toll collectors," such as Kinder Morgan Energy Partners (NYSE:KMI).

Talk about the country's energy needs with other Fools on the Energy & Utilities discussion board.

Fool contributor Rich Smith owns no shares in any of the companies discussed in this article.