Utah's first nuclear plant won't float without water rights
The former uranium boomtown of Green River sits along I-70 in eastern Utah, 100 miles from the closest city. Now it may become the Western outpost of America's nascent nuclear renaissance. Blue Castle Holdings, a 3-year-old, politically connected startup, wants to build a nuclear power plant here -- Utah's first, and the first in the West since 1987.
Nuclear power has recently gained cachet -- and the backing of the Obama administration -- for its potential to help avert climate change. Nuclear generation emits a fraction of the greenhouse gases of coal or natural gas generation, and provides a steadier energy supply, at a larger scale, than solar or wind arrays. In January, President Obama made nuclear power the center of his "clean energy" agenda in his State of the Union speech. Two days later, he announced a commission to study nuclear waste solutions, and proposed tripling federal loan guarantees for new plants to $54 billion.
The Green River proposal has sparked intense skepticism. Critics ask where the funding will come from, where the electricity will go, and, of course, what will happen to the waste. But the first hurdle is more immediate. In the Utah desert, this possible climate change solution is colliding with one of its projected consequences: water scarcity.
Blue Castle needs some 50,000 acre-feet annually -- enough water to supply up to 100,000 homes -- to cool the reactors of its proposed 3,000 megawatt plant, which would produce enough electricity to power nearly 3 million households.
In 2007, the company struck a deal to lease 53,600 acre-feet from Utah's San Juan and Kane counties, which are about 150 miles south of the proposed reactor site. Blue Castle has applied to move the counties' diversion points upstream, onto the Green River, from their current locations on the San Juan River and Lake Powell. Aaron Tilton, Blue Castle's CEO and a former Utah state legislator, believes the Green, the Colorado's major tributary, has enough water for the project; in an average year, he says, the plant would lower the river by less than 2 inches.
But the plan has drawn protests from local farm, health and recreation interests, environmental groups, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Bureau of Reclamation.
"Our main concern is that the water really isn't there," says John Weisheit, conservation director of the nonprofit Living Rivers, in Moab. A 2009 study by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration cites estimates that over the next 50 years, the Colorado River system could lose between 6 and 20 percent of its total volume to climate change-induced drought. Fish and Wildlife, BuRec and the Utah Division of Water Resources want the state engineer to wait for the results of several studies on future water levels in the Green River and across the Colorado Basin before allocating any more rights.
If more water is taken from the river, the agencies may not be able to keep stream flow high enough to protect several species of rare and endangered fish, says Wayne Pullan of BuRec's Provo office.
And if the Green River drops, Blue Castle would have early rights to what remains: While San Juan's rights are junior (2001), Kane County has 1964 rights to 29,600 acre-feet. That places it ahead of many rights holders, including the BuRec's Central Utah Project, which supplies water to much of the Wasatch Front. Pullan says that in a drought, calls from such senior rights could short the project's users -- including Salt Lake City.
This is part of a much larger tangle. If Utah develops just 360,000 more acre-feet of Colorado Basin water, it will hit its limit (1.4 million acre-feet) under the Colorado River Compact. But it has handed out paper rights to an additional 1.1 million acre-feet. All those rights holders, like Kane County, still have the right to develop. But Utah will have no excess water to supply them, and so water will be rationed by priority date across the state. In that context, Blue Castle's request is nothing to sniff at -- it's a seventh of the water Utah has left.
At times, the Blue Castle proposal looks like a water right in search of a project. Kane County has five more years to prove it is putting its water rights to "beneficial use," or risk forfeiting them, according to Mike Noel, executive director of the Kane County Water Conservancy District. By leasing the water to Blue Castle, the county hopes to meet its deadline –– and earn $1 million a year once the reactors are constructed. (San Juan County would earn $800,000 annually.) Noel, a Utah state representative (R-Kanab), is the project's unofficial godfather. He was hunting for a use for Kane County's water while serving on the same committee with then-Rep. Tilton. A prominent nuclear booster (and vocal climate change skeptic), Noel introduced Tilton to Tom Retson, a North Carolina-based nuclear consultant. Retson and Tilton formed Blue Castle Holdings in early 2007. (Noel says he has "zero" personal financial interest in the project.)
Despite the water wrangling, many of Green River's 1,000 residents welcome the proposal. The town depends on agriculture and tourism, and neither pays the bills, says Mike McCandless, economic development director for Emery County. A nuclear plant would provide a solid tax base, and its construction would employ up to 4,000 people, with 750 to 850 full-time once it began operating. After decades of the nuclear industry taking advantage of the state, McCandless says, this is a chance for Utahns to benefit.
Even if Blue Castle does get its water rights, though, it's unclear whether the project will ever materialize. Nuclear power plants require immense up-front funding: at least $100 million for the Nuclear Regulatory Commission's application process, which could take five to seven years or longer. Estimates for the cost of building the reactors range between $7 and $15 billion.
And there is the never-ending question of what to do with the high-level nuclear waste -- especially since the Obama administration has essentially pulled the plug on the Yucca Mountain repository.
But all of that comes later. "First, you've got to have water," says Tilton. "If you don't have water, you don't have a project."
Rachel Waldholz is an HCN intern.
This story was funded by a grant from the David and Lucile Packard Foundation.
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