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Is Nuclear Power in Utah’s Future?

30 September 2013
Published in Energy
Written by  Kim Schuske
Is Nuclear Power in Utah’s Future? Dept of Energy--Three Mile Island

Fears have prevented the construction of nuclear power plants for over 40 years, but Blue Castle Holdings is proposing to build a new one near Green River, Utah. The feasibility of the plant as well as water rights granted to the company were on trial last week.

Update (11/28/13): Utah Judge George Harmond ruled in favor of Blue Castle and approved water rights allocated from the Green River for use in a future nuclear power plant.

In 1953, General Electric released a promotional animated movie called A is for Atom. It explained nuclear fission to the public.

"What would happen, they [scientists] wondered, if they fired a neutron at a Uranium nucleus, already the heaviest in nature? Why not try? So they tried. And the result...nuclear fission. Instead of a minor change, the atom split in two. Truly a discovery to change the world."

It also extolled the virtues of nuclear power.

"The future supplying of electric power to entire cities is far from impossible. While nuclear power in locomotives, submarines, ships, and even very large airplanes may all but revolutionize future transportation on land, sea, and air."

The first commercial nuclear power plant went on-line in the US in 1958, there are now 65 throughout the country. But over the decades, accidents, including the one at Three Mile Island in 1979 and more recently Fukushima in 2011, have caused a backlash against nuclear power. Compounding the problem is the cost of building a new plant, which runs in the billions of dollars, and the difficulty of storing radioactive waste. These obstacles have prevented the construction of new plants in the US for more than 40 years.

Blue Castle Holdings wants to change that. Aaron Tilton, President and CEO of the company, says they are developing plans to build a plant near Green River, Utah, about 65 miles South of Price. He says the location is much safer than others like Fukushima.

"So what we've done is we looked over the Western United States for the development of our project early on," says Tilton. "We've selected a site that has what we consider the lowest potential for any of these natural disasters. There's no potential for wildfires there, there's no significant potential for earthquakes, it's outside of flood plains."

Tilton says there are number of reasons why Utah needs nuclear power. It's estimated the plant would be able to supply about 1 million homes with electricity. Nuclear energy produces less emissions than coal or even natural gas, which make up 96% of Utah's current energy sources. He also says it's important for a state to have a diverse energy portfolio.

"You need fuel diversification in order not to be subject to just these kinds of things, natural disasters or other things that might shut off one or multiple supplies of electricity."

The low emissions, including carbon dioxide, associated with nuclear energy have won over some who are worried about global warming and bad air. But not Matt Pacenza, Policy Director for the Healthy Environment Alliance of Utah (HEAL Utah).

"Even if seismic activity itself may not be a core issue along the Green River, what we have certainly learned from the Japan experience is that anything that can disrupt power to a plant, can disrupt the flow of water to a plant, can have serious consequences," says Pacenza.

The first hurdle for Blue Castle was cleared last year, when the Utah State Engineer, Kent Jones, granted 53,000 acre feet to the plant. That's enough to supply up to 100,000 homes with water for a year. The water right had previously been issued to a coal plant, but that plant was never built, and the right was transferred to Blue Castle.

The development has caused concern among environmental groups including HEAL Utah. They fear that the Colorado River has already been over allocated. What's more, there is concern a nuclear power plant would take priority over other water rights because water must be used to keep the plant cool, even during a drought. They have sued Blue Castle, and the case was heard in court last week. Pacenza says while water, radioactive waste, and the inherent danger of nuclear power are all important, the defining issue is cost.

"People should be concerned about risks and they should think carefully about what could happen here or anywhere that you have nuclear power plants," says Pacenza. "But at the end of the day what has ultimately doomed nuclear power is that the dollars and cents just don't add up."

The financial well-being of the Blue Castle plant was also on trial last week since viability of the project is an important factor for receiving water rights. So far, the company has raised just $17 million towards the expected $100 million dollar cost to get a license. In total, the project is expected to cost around $17 billion dollars and will require buy in from existing energy companies, none of which have publically expressed an interest in the project.

A ruling is expected within 60 days.

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