Is this the nuclear renaissance?


It’s been a big week for nuclear power.

First there was the conspicuous nuclear shout-out in the State of the Union last Wednesday, followed by the White House announcement, on Friday, that the Energy Department will explore new solutions for coping with nuclear waste. Then, yesterday, the administration released its budget proposal, with a plan to triple federal loan guarantees for nuclear power plants to $54 billion.

All this comes at a time when the Nuclear Regulatory Commission is facing a "tsunami" of applications for new nuclear reactors, according to the Investigative Reporting Workshop's Judy Pasternak. After decades without approving a single application, the NRC has received 17 since 2007, prompted by incentives created during the Bush years. And while many companies want to build new reactors on sites which already host old ones, a handful are proposing wholly new locations, which means that some communities are starting to have debates nobody has had for 25 years.

One of them is Green River, Utah. That's where Blue Castle Holdings Inc. a three-year-old, politically well-connected start-up, wants to build Utah's first nuclear power plant.

The plan is still in the early, early, early stages. Before Blue Castle can submit an application to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, it needs some 50,000 acre-feet of water rights in the Green River to cool its proposed twin 1500MW reactors. 

The company has struck a deal to lease 53,600 acre-feet of unused water rights from San Juan and Kane Counties in southern Utah - prompting protests from everyone from local farm, health, and recreation interests to environmental groups, the US Fish and Wildlife Service and the Bureau of Reclamation.

The counties have applied to let Blue Castle divert their share of Colorado River water from the Green River instead, at the proposed reactor site some 150 miles upstream of the counties’ location. While San Juan’s water rights are fairly junior (2001), Kane County’s 1964 water rights are older than those of the Bureau of Reclamation’s $2.2 billion Central Utah Project, which provides water for the cities, farms and industry of the Wasatch Front, some 1.6 million people. Wayne Pullan, of the Bureau's Provo office, said the agency is worried that if senior water rights downstream, such as Kane County’s, are developed, they could call out the CUP – and short the cities and farms it supplies.

Blue Castle has placed itself in the midst of a much larger tangle, here: according to the Bureau, Utah has handed out, on paper, 2.5 million acre-feet of Colorado River Basin water rights – almost double the 1.4 million acre-feet the state has rights to under the Colorado River Compact. "Our main concern is that the water really isn’t there," said John Weisheit, conservation director of Living Rivers in Moab, citing estimates that with the impact of climate change, Utah has even less water than it’s allotted under the Compact.

Moving the claims onto the Green River also impacts the Bureau’s commitments to keep stream flow in the Green River high enough for endangered fish, such as the humpback chub – which wasn’t an issue when the water was going to come out of the Colorado River, said Pullan.

Blue Castle and local supporters point to the project’s possible economic benefits. Once the reactors are constructed, Kane County would make $1 million a year, San Juan County $800,000. Blue Castle CEO Aaron Tilton has estimated the plant would employ 2,000 to 4,000 people during construction, with 1,100 permanent jobs once it's up and running.  "Green River desperately needs the economic life the Blue Castle Project would give us and pull us from the mire of poverty," Green River Mayor Pat Brady told the Grand Junction Sentinel.

The question, of course, is at what price? A Salt Lake Tribune editorial recently weighed in against the plan, citing Utah’s "grievous experience with radioactive uranium, waste storage and weapons testing."

So far, the proposal has raised more questions then it has answered: where the immense funding to apply for a license and build a reactor will come from; where the electricity it generates will go; and, of course, what would happen to the waste.

It’s anyone’s guess whether the Blue Castle project will ever move forward. On its Web site, Blue Castle acknowledges that it isn’t particularly interested in actually building and operating a plant – instead, it hopes to apply for a permit and then sell it to a consortium of utilities and other interests which would actually build and run the plant. The Salt Lake Tribune published a possible time line for the project, estimating the plant would begin operation around 2032, though CEO Tilton has said it could be as soon as 2020.

"It’s a complex thing for any community to have to tackle," said Sarah Fields of Moab-based Uranium Watch. "I don’t think that people in the community or (those) promoting this have a clue what they are getting into."