The United States has just taken its biggest step in three decades to restore life to the nuclear industry, which may in turn power up nuclear and utility exchange traded funds (ETFs).

There are four utility companies that have been selected to receive $18.5 billion in federal financing over the next few years to build the next generation of nuclear reactors. The first steps are set to begin in 2011, and the plants could be online by 2015. Rebecca Smith for The Wall Street Journal reports that UniStar Nuclear Energy, NRG Energy Inc. (NRG), Scana Corp. (SCG) and Southern Co. (SO) are expected to share a set of loan guarantees to be awarded by the Energy Department.

The companies have selected sites for the reactors and are at the forefront the receive licenses to build and operate them. Bear in mind, the government hasn’t formally announced its picks, but energy company officials and reactor vendors have identified the likely winners.

Nuclear power is an Energy Agency  priority, and reduced emissions of carbon dioxide are likely to cut down on greenhouse gas problems. The plants are facing opposition, because of technical, regulatory and profitability issues.