A judge on Wednesday, Nov. 27, removed one of many obstacles for a company that wants to build the first nuclear power plant in Utah.
Utah-based Blue Castle Holdings, led by former state representative Aaron Tilton, is planning to build two 1500-megawatt reactors on the 1700-acre parcel of land near Green River.
Seventh District Judge George Harmon ruled the project won’t jeopardize the availability of water supplies as he approved a water-rights transfer for the reactor’s cooling towers.
Harmon presided over a trial earlier this year pitting the environmental group HEAL Utah against Blue Castle Holdings, the company that wants to build the nuclear plant.
Critics argued that Blue Castle doesn’t have the assets to pull off a multi-billion project and that it would take too much water out of the Green River at a time when water supplies are shrinking across the West owing to long-term drought.
“It’s baffling that this project continues to stumble forward,” said Matt Pacenza, HEAL Utah’s policy director. “We learned during the trial that Blue Castle has struggled to attract any investment at all. Our largest utility, Rocky Mountain Power, has explicitly said they aren’t interested in nuclear power. This judge had a chance to rule that such a speculative project had no right to our precious water.”
Chris Baird, director of the Canyonlands Watershed Council, echoed his concerns.
“State law requires these projects to not be speculative,” Baird said. “There is nothing to show that this is a legitimate business proposal. To allow this to happen is obviously looking away from the establishment of law.”
Utah has plenty of water, the judge ruled.
The state is using only 1 million of its 1.4-million acre-feet allotment from the Colorado Basin, the nuclear plant wouldn’t take anybody else’s water, and Blue Castle doesn’t have to prove the project is economically feasible to justify a water transfer, the judge said.
“It is far from certain that Blue Castle will find partners to construct the nuclear plant, but Blue Castle’s business plan shows the project, if built, will eventually be profitable,” Harmon wrote in his 26-page decision.
His ruling upholds a 2010 decision by State Engineer Kent Jones to approve the use of 53,600 acre-feet of water a year for the twin reactor. The water was previously approved for coal-fired power plants in Kane and San Juan counties that were never built. Those rights reverted back to water conservancy districts for both counties, which agreed to sell them for the 2,500-megawatt nuclear plant.
However, according to Baird, Utah has given out more water on paper than they legally can through the Colorado River Compact.
“We’re way over-allocated,” he said.
Baird said that the rights on paper reflect a 20-year period that may be the wettest on record.
“The water isn’t there to begin with. That scenario doesn’t take in climate change. Bureau of Reclamation’s report that this area will be 20 to 30 percent drier in the future,” Baird said. “It’s far beyond what nature can provide. Couple it with a nuclear reactor that requires water to cool. It’s scary to put something so big and dangerous into this situation, when everything is so ambiguous and dark. We don’t know who the backers are; we don’t know what power company will buy this.”
John Weisheit, director of Moab-based Living Rivers, said that the San Juan County water rights are secondary to Kane County’s. This difference could cause operational issues should there be a water shortage preventing the fulfillment of both rights.
“This would diminish pay back to the construction loans and investor return. This also means the grid will not be as reliable as the proponents claim,” Weisheit said.
The plant would draw water continuously from the Green River, primarily for cooling that’s essential for any nuclear plant, the judge said.
Weisheit critiqued the use of the Green River for cooling by referring to Japan’s ongoing issue of the Fukushima reactors that were destroyed during a typhoon in 2011.
“Fukushima has an ocean of water to cool down their meltdown and fuel rod storage pools. How would a nuclear power plant in an over-allocated river basin possibly respond in a similar manner?” Weisheit asked.
Weisheit said the Fukushima problem “isn’t going to be solved anytime soon” and when it is resolved the debt will follow for generations.
The power station still requires a number of federal permits that could take years for the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to approve. Blue Castle has already spent $17.5 million on initial studies, according to Harmon’s decision.
Weisheit said that Blue Castle Holdings will have to do a study on endangered fish.
“I, for one, can hardly wait to look it over,” he said.
The proposed project would increase the electricity generated in Utah by approximately 50 percent, adding about 3,000 Megawatts of installed electrical capacity and using less than 1 percent of the state’s current water diversion, according to a press release from Blue Castle Holdings.
The project also will have a significant economic impact, company officials say. Blue Castle expects to employ about 1000 permanent full-time employees for sixty years.
As many as 3000 workers will work during the projected six-year construction of the dual unit plant, the company said.
Judge ruled that economic feasibility is not required for water rights
“It’s scary to put something so big and dangerous into this situation, when everything is so ambiguous and dark.”