Tom Smart, Deseret News archives
This August 2009 file photo shows rafters in Green River in Desolation Canyon.
The water we'd lease is not being utilized at all.

GREEN RIVER, Emery County — When and if a nuclear power plant will be built in Utah depends largely on the waters of the Green River.

The pivotal question of whether there is enough water in the Colorado River's chief tributary will likely be determined by the end of the year with decisions rendered by the State Engineer's Office, the agency that decides water rights issues.

Blue Castle Holdings, whose president and chief executive officer is former state lawmaker Aaron Tilton, proposes to divert 53,600 acre feet of water from the Green River. An acre-foot of water is enough water to supply a household of four for a year.

Even if the applications for the diversions are approved, an appeal before a district court judge is anticipated.

To understand what is at stake, you have to understand the Green River.

Its annual average flow is 6,048 cubic feet per second — or nearly 4.4 million acre-feet.

The proposed diversion represents 1.2 percent of that annual average flow, but critics say the Upper Colorado River Basin — of which Utah is part — is already being tapped dry because there are too many straws in the bucket.

Winners, losers

San Juan and Kane County water districts own the water, which would be leased for the cooling process in the twin-unit plant.

San Juan's water, 24,000 acre-feet, comes from the San Juan River, another tributary of the Colorado River. Kane County's is from Wahweep at Lake Powell — 29,600 acre-feet. Both are unused rights to water previously approved by the state engineer for use in a pair of failed coal-fired power plants.

Tilton wants the point of diversion for the water changed to the Green River for a plant that would generate 3,000 megawatts of electricity.

A hearing earlier this week before the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission unveiled some of the extensive pre-application work that has to be done to determine if the 1,700-acre parcel four miles west of the town of Green River is suitable.

Foes of nuclear power and water watchdogs of the Colorado River system say Utah is not the place for a new nuclear power plant and the Green River — home to a trio of endangered fish — can't sustain such a withdrawal.

The three counties with a financial stake in the fight disagree.

Green River's Emery County has come out in support of the proposal, hungrily eying the thousands of high paying jobs that will come during construction and the hundreds that will stay after the plant is built.

Both San Juan and Kane County water districts have penned contracts with Blue Castle that district managers say will bring them a financial windfall for a significant quantity of water they say they can't envision needing for decades to come.

Kane County's district will get $1 million a year once production starts at the nuclear power plant, while San Juan's district will get $800,000 for leasing its water.

In the interim — while the plant goes through the federal licensing process — Kane would get $100,000 a year, while San Juan would receive $80,000 annually.

"The water we'd lease is not being utilized at all," said Norman Johnson, general manager of San Juan's water district. "It's flowing past us down the San Juan and we gain no benefit. If we utilize it for the Green River, we stand to gain tremendously because we put our water to use."

For perspective, the district's annual budget is a mere $76,000 a year. The annual payments of $800,000 to lease the water will be mind boggling, he admits.

"I don't think those of us who live in southern or eastern Utah have a clue about what the impacts of this plant will be, with the money, the jobs, the infrastructure that will come with it."

Johnson hails from a family with a tradition in uranium mining, so he readily touts his pro-nuclear power stance.

"I do not have the fear of it so many people do," he said. "Is there risk? There is risk walking out of my office today. We are not going to eliminate risk in this world, but it certainly can be mitigated. … There is probably a lot less health risk in this than from a coal-fired power plant."

Rep. Mike Noel, R-Kanab, is executive administrator of the Kane County Water Conservancy District and a friend of Tilton. Critics have accused him of pushing the deal because he will benefit.

Noel, who said he has recused himself from any hands-on involvement, said the decision to lease the water came from a unanimous vote of the board, of which he is not a member.

"This is a great benefit for the county for water that we don't need for growth right now," he said. "By the time we grow out, we can make the decision then not to re-lease it. There may come a time when the water needs outgrow any need for power, but this is a significant amount of water we can't use."

'Big application'

The fact that it is a significant amount of water is not lost on the State Engineer's Office.

As Utah's caretakers over how much water is used where, deputy state engineer Boyd Clayton said the office will weigh a number of issues set down in state law.

"It is a big application, yes," he said.

Clayton said the office received a significant number of protests related to the proposed diversion and accepted comments in a January 2010 hearing.

The office must now consider if there is available water in the Green River, if appropriation of that water will interfere with existing users or a more beneficial use and if the proposed plan is feasible or would prove detrimental to the public welfare.

The office won't technically consider the public policy question of whether a nuclear power plant is appropriate for Utah, Clayton said.

 "If it is a legal use of water it is a legal use of water," he said. "We certainly have a responsibility to look out for the public welfare, and that is where those issues would come in primarily."

The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation is one agency that says it stands to lose if the diversion for water is granted as submitted. And if it loses, Wasatch Front residents and those in the Uintah Basin area may lose as well.

Because the water Tilton wants comes from water rights older than what is being used by the agency for a portion of its Central Utah Project, supplies could be in jeopardy, said Wayne Pullan, deputy manager of the bureau's Provo area office.

"The Central Utah Project was built with the understanding that the water rights it had were high enough in priority on the Green River that we would never have to worry about a shortage," Pullan said. "If all of a sudden this phantom water — which has never been taken out of the Green River — shows up ahead of us in priority, there is a real possibility of shortage in our Bonneville Unit."

That unit is what makes the transfer of water possible to the Uintah Basin and the Wasatch Front.

"The United States and local users have a huge investment in that project — over $3 billion. It is imperative for us to make certain that we have a complete water supply."

In its comments submitted to the State Engineer's Office, the bureau asked that at the very least, the water Tilton is proposing to divert be given lower priority than the Central Utah Project.

Policy discussion

Beyond the vexing issues posed by the use of water needed for Tilton's proposal is the question of Utah being an appropriate place for a nuclear power plant.

The United States remains the world's top nuclear power producer, with 104 reactors scattered throughout the country, most on the East Coast. Some 31 states are already home to nuclear power plants, and four states get 50 percent or more of their power from nuclear energy, according to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

In February, President Obama announced $8 billion in federal loan guarantees to depart from a decades-long hiatus in the establishment of new nuclear power plants.

This spring's crippling of Japan's Fukushima nuclear power plant after a tsunami and earthquake stoked new anxiety over the safety of such plants, and had the NRC conducting new assessments on U.S. facilities to determine vulnerabilities.

Scott Burnell, NRC spokesman, said there have been no nuclear power plant accidents on U.S. soil since 1979's Three Mile Island, although there have been instances were plants were shut down until safety issues were resolved.

"In those cases there was no radioactive material getting into the environment."

The United States is on track for a potential of 10 new nuclear power plants with 18 reactors from developers who are in the advanced stage of licensing. Two early site applications have been formally submitted and Blue Castle is one of three companies doing the legwork necessary for the application.

As part of its licensing process, Blue Castle has to craft comprehensive emergency evacuation plans involving agencies at the local, state and federal level. Those plans are submitted to the Federal Emergency Management Agency and forwarded on to the NRC for review.

Last week, Blue Castle hosted a kick-off workshop to that end for plans that will encompass emergency measures within close proximity to the proposed plant and a 50-mile radius.

Even the need for such plans go to the concern of groups like Moab-based Uranium Watch and HEAL Utah.

Neighboring Grand County — a tourist draw with its two national parks and state park — says a nuclear power plant at the very least is out of place and at worst poses threats to visitors and residents who would have to be evacuated in an untenable way should there be a meltdown.

Utah's fault-ridden landscape, as well, gives rise to concerns over how an earthquake would play out with a nuclear power plant — although several other reactors have been built in similarly prone earthquake states, including California.

As part of the assessment to determine if the Green River site is suitable for a nuclear power plant, Blue Castle will have to go through extensive seismic analysis, Burnell said.

"Blue Castle has to characterize the site pretty extensively, with a significant amount of detail looking at just about every 'ology' you can think of. … Seismic issues have been a particular interest to the agency for the last year or so, with an ongoing effort going back several years to ensure that existing reactors are analyzed using the latest methods available."

Tilton says because of Fukushima, Blue Castle is spending an additional $7 million in seismic studies for the site, for a total of $14 million in an analysis more intensive than any done in the western United States.

Utah nuclear power

If built, Blue Castle's plant will have the capacity for 3,000 megawatts of electricity, increasing the amount of electricity generated in Utah by approximately 50 percent, according to Tilton.

With Utah already a net exporter of energy to states like California, critics say the state shouldn't bear the risk of a nuclear power plant, especially if residents don't get to benefit from the power.

Tilton says he has 18 utility companies that have expressed interest for a total of 4,500 megawatts of electricity.

"There is definitely more interest than there is power that is going to be available from the project."

Tilton says he envisions large power providers securing equity or ownership in the plant for its 60- to 70-year life.

"I don't think there is any question some of it will stay here," he said. "Of those who have expressed interest, about half of that would stay in Utah."

Tougher federal air quality rules have made coal an obsolete resource for new projects, he added.

"We're already at that point where it is not possible to bring on new coal-fired resources in the state," Tilton said, because of concerns over impacts to the airshed and national parks.

Gov. Gary Herbert, too, has said that nuclear power has to be part of a policy discussion for Utah's energy portfolio as it goes into the future.

He will not weigh in at this point on the viability of Blue Castle's proposal, because he says it is too early in the process.

"We should have the discussion based on principle, whether it be Blue Castle or anyone else," he said. "Should nuclear power be generated within the borders of Utah? Mostly a yes, but that discussion, too, has not been fully vetted."

Last year, Herbert signed a bill that provides tax incentives for the development of alternative energy, including nuclear power.

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He said Utah residents will have a chance to voice their concerns, or support, at various outreach meetings the NRC has to hold, and the public's safety and welfare are his foremost concerns.

The final decision, however, rests with the NRC, not with the state, although he did say he says the history of the United States with nuclear power has been "all benefit and not a lot negativity. … I have no reason to criticize the federal permitting process."

Still, issues like the availability of water, earthquake concerns and location are all high priorities for consideration, he said.

"There are concerns that ought to be legitimately discussed."

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