Fight the Green River nuclear reactors project in Utah


Drive south from Price, Utah for about an hour until Route 6 intersects with I-70. On your right, toward the west, the stunning San Rafael Reef rises. And on the left, the eastern Book Cliffs rise.

And, just there, to the east of Route 6, if the energy development company, Blue Castle Holdings, and Utah state water officials have their way, you’ll soon see an industrial park dominated by the Mountain West’s first commercial nuclear reactors: the so-called “Green River nuclear” project.

Later this month, at a courthouse in Price, a Utah state judge will hear a bid from more than a dozen environmental groups, businesses and citizens to overturn a decision approving the transfer of Green River water to cool the proposed reactors. This trial is likely the last and best chance to stop the project before it moves to the industry-friendly Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

HEAL Utah – an advocacy group that I am policy director of – is a lead plaintiff, along with Uranium Watch and Living Rivers, fighting the construction of the Green River reactors.

We are determined to stop this project because we believe nuclear power is a poor choice for Utah’s energy future; it uses too much water, produces costly power we don’t need and poses serious risks. In addition, allowing the Green River nuclear reactors to move forward sets a dangerous precedent, at a time when the Colorado River basin faces numerous water-consumptive energy proposals.

In other words, if you’re worried about tar sands, oil shale and fracking, you damn well should be worried about the Green River nukes too.

The site south of Salt Lake City, Utah near the Green River where two nuclear reactors may be built. Photo from HEAL Utah.

The story of the origin of the Green River nukes is a classic Western water tale, rife with backroom deals, political shadiness and an aggressive salesman with a big story to sell.

In 2007 a Utah legislative committee debated a bill to allow a utility to charge customers for a nuclear reactor’s development costs. That committee’s chair (Rep. Mike Noel, R-Kanab) and vice-chair (Rep. Aaron Tilton, R-Springville) didn’t disclose any direct interest in nuclear power, but it soon came out that the two had quietly been negotiating a related deal.

The Kane County Water Conservancy District (run by Noel) had agreed to lease Transition Power Development (run by Tilton) water to cool its proposed nuclear power project – a project Utahns didn’t even know existed until press broke the story in late 2007.

That led the Deseret News to opine, “If these two guys don't have clear conflicts of interests on Utah developing nuclear power, then legislators are not living in the real world their constituents face each day.”

The Green River nukes idea seemed even shadier once the public learned more about Tilton, who had zero nuclear experience, but had, “been a vegetarian restaurateur, worked for a company that sells Viagra online, and tried to fix your kids, before moving into energy consulting.” Needless to say, that résumé led most Utahns to treat the proposed Green River reactors with skepticism.

But, in the coming years, Tilton and Blue Castle Holdings (as his company, Transition Power Development is now named) amassed a formidable leadership team. The company’s principals soon included a former NRC Commissioner, a Utah coal power executive and a former General Electric nuclear executive.

In addition, Tilton signed a second water lease, this time with San Juan County. Now, with 53,000 acre-feet of precious Green River water per year (roughly the same amount that a city of 200,000 uses), Blue Castle was ready to move forward.

Their first step was to gain approval for their water rights transfers from the Utah State Engineer, Kent Jones. HEAL and several hundred others formally protested that application, but in early 2012, Jones approved Blue Castle’s bid.

HEAL then chose to go to court – in hopes that a state judge would take a more critical look at Blue Castle’s claims. We contend Utah has failed to verify that the financially struggling company has enough money to complete the project, as state law requires. We also believe the company has not proven that its reactors won’t interfere with other water rights or harm the fragile Green River ecosystem and endangered fisheries.

Our case “HEAL Utah et al v. Blue Castle Holdings et al,” will be tried in the 7th District Court in Price, from Sept. 23-30.

This is more than just a nuclear power case. It is also a public airing of whether Western officials should endorse virtually any speculative use of our precious water. It’s a chance to ask a judge to seriously consider the growing impacts of climate change, as study after study suggests the Colorado River basin will lose anywhere from 8 to 35 percent of its water as snowpack recedes and drought intensifies.

And, yes, in the wake of Fukushima, it’s a chance to ask whether siting nuclear reactors upstream from the rivers that supply water to 30 million Americans is a wise choice.

Stay tuned for late September updates from our trial.

Matt Pacenza is policy director for HEAL Utah, an environmental nonprofit based in Salt Lake City.

Essays in the Range blog are not written by High Country News. The authors are solely responsible for the content.

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