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for people who care about the West

Our nuclear legacy should have taught us something

 

Here in Moab, Utah, where we can watch railcars carry off the radioactive uranium waste that was stored right next to the Colorado River, many locals are steeling themselves for the return of yet more uranium to their lives.

During the Cold War, Moab was called the uranium capital of the world, as the element was both mined and milled in the area; the 16 million-ton tailings pile is the legacy of that boom. Now, eastern Utah is in the running to host one of the first nuclear power plants to be built in this country in almost four decades.

Area nonprofit groups have opposed the proposed project for years, and scores of residents spoke out against it at a standing-room-only meeting held by the county meeting last fall. Over a dozen incredulous citizens echoed the phrase, "This is crazy," while many talked about the still-unsolved problems involved in safely storing mining or power-production waste. Ten women were moved to speak in defense of their "viable eggs" --­ their unborn children. Many others wondered about the plant's impacts on the desert, the river and a tourist industry that depends on wild and uncontaminated public lands.

One resident added, "There is no compensation for a loss of community. There are no guarantees that these plants will run smoothly."

Though Moab's elected officials have not taken an official stance, Emery County, home of the nuclear potential power plant, has gone on record in support of the project for the sake of the jobs it promises to bring.

Blue Castle Holdings, the Utah-based company behind the power plants, says it selected the Green River site because major highways, rail lines, utility corridors and water all converge there. Though the company says that 15 utilities have expressed interest in purchasing some of the 3,000 megawatts of electricity it would eventually produce, the only known customer is Page Electric Utility, in northern Arizona. Yet that utility would apparently buy only 1 percent of what Blue Castle generates. Other possible buyers are bound to be based outside of Utah, since Utah's electric power is primarily fueled by coal.

In a major coup for Blue Castle, the state of Utah recently awarded it water rights for the power plant. Permission to withdraw 53,600 acre feet of water a year from the already overtaxed Green River, however, was granted with this caveat: "Approval of the application does not guarantee sufficient water will always be available from the river to operate the plant."

To have a fickle desert waterway as a buffer against potential disaster seems a shaky start. Also disquieting is the thought of radioactive waste sitting in casks under the harsh desert sun, waiting for a nuclear waste repository like Yucca Mountain to finally open its doors. Nuclear industry representatives like to boast about the safety of nuclear power generation, but such assurances were of no help to the people of Fukushima, Japan, last year after a tsunami breached containment structures at a power plant.

It's been only three years since the long-awaited ceremony at Moab's old Atlas Corp. mill site, where local, state and federal dignitaries cut the ribbon on a project that would finally remove all the still-radioactive waste from the banks of the Colorado River, an effort expected to take 16 years. While visiting officials celebrated by trading commemorative coins and eating frosted "yellow cake" -- a play on the term for the concentrated uranium powder that uranium mills generate -- local residents reminisced about their 20-year struggle to force elected officials to pay attention to the issue and to finally act.

Now, of course, the uranium specter threatens to return, and industry representatives tell us this time it will all be different. As one Blue Castle official put it last fall, "We have spent a lot of time researching this... We feel that gives us justification to move forward."

Blue Castle's fate now rests in the hands of the fission-friendly Nuclear Regulatory Commission. But the company also needs investors to cover licensing and construction costs of an estimated $18 billion.  Potential backer LeadDOG Capital, however, which pledged $30 million to the project, is currently in trouble with the Securities and Exchange Commission for allegedly defrauding investors.

All electric-power producing plants face long lead times and financial and regulatory uncertainties. A lot of Moab residents hope that in this case, the time stretches out for a long, long while.

Jan Jackson is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). She lives and writes in Moab, Utah.