Let’s Have the Talk
Saying Utahns “ought not to be afraid,” Republican Gov. Gary Herbert surprised many residents when, in January 2011, he called for a “substantive debate” on whether a nuclear power plant should be in Utah’s energy future. Nuclear power factors into his recently released 10-year energy plan. Ally Isom, Herbert’s spokeswoman, says the governor “wants to have a discussion on how to meet Utah’s future base-load energy needs.” Isom describes the governor’s position as “not pro-nuclear … but pro-nuclear discussion.” His real concern, Isom says, is Utah’s energy future.
Herbert’s senior adviser on the environment, Ted Wilson, says the governor would behave as an “aggressive regulator … if all the i’s are not dotted and the t’s are not crossed, they won’t get a permit.” He insists the governor’s office is otherwise neutral.
The Healthy Environment Alliance of Utah (HEAL) has long been a vocal opponent of nuclear power development in Utah. The group, founded in the early 1990s to combat chemical-weapons incinerators, has taken on nuclear issues ranging from the storage of depleted uranium to the plight of Utah’s “downwinders.”
In 2010, HEAL released its own energy report, “The eUtah Project,” which proposes Utah create an affordable and sustainable future using a mix of renewable energy sources—including solar, wind and geothermal energies—as well as natural gas, with a goal of reducing Utah’s carbon emissions 95 percent by 2050.
Wilson is positive about “The eUtah Project,” while pointing out that the difference in time frame was the major point of divergence between the governor’s report and HEAL’s. “You can predict a lot more in renewables over 40 years than you can in 10,” he notes.
“The biggest reason we need nuclear power is that it doesn’t have [carbon] emissions, and it’s clean,” Tilton says. “It’s essentially environmentally benign.” According to the World Nuclear Association, an advocacy group for the nuclear industry, nuclear power already reduces carbon dioxide emissions by around 2.75 billion tons per year. In 2007, the U.N. International Panel on Climate Change endorsed nuclear power as a major player in combating the effects of man-made climate change while sating growing energy appetites.
“I’ve Got Water”
Whether this can be done sustainably in a state where water is scarce is the vexing question. A 2008 report, “Abrupt Climate Change,” by the U.S. Geological Survey predicts that droughts across the Southwest will become more “severe and persistent” to the point of near-permanent aridity in 2050. However, Tilton’s not convinced that Utah is getting drier. “The assumption that there will be less and less water in the river may not be the case.”
He points to studies done by Jerry Olds, the former state engineer who serves as an engineering consultant for Blue Castle, that found that even at the Green’s driest times, water will be available with relatively low environmental impact. If not, he says, the plant’s reservoirs will allow for up to 40 days of curtailed withdrawals.
Water, it turns out, is the driving force behind Blue Castle’s inception. Tilton, 39, a medium-built man with brown close-cropped hair and beard just barely graying, speaks in thoughtful yet relaxed phrasing, underlined by unobtrusive hand gestures. Conveying an inborn confidence that sets investors, colleagues and locals at ease, he casually shrugs off losing his seat in the Legislature in 2008 (“It was not a big deal”) and being called “arrogant and dismissive” by a local environmentalist (“I don’t know how to make everyone like me”).
After graduating from Springville High School in 1990 and deciding to try launching businesses instead of going to college, Tilton dabbled in the restaurant, construction and Internet-sales industries before working as a consultant in the energy industry. There, he negotiated power-purchase agreements for coal-fired plants in Wyoming and Utah.
In 2004, he ran against incumbent and fellow Republican Calvin Bird for Springville’s seat in the House but was catapulted into the seat by appointment when it was revealed that Bird had solicited prostitutes. Then, in 2005, a moment of kismet took place when he began serving on the House Public Utilities and Technology Committee with Rep. Mike Noel, R-Kanab, executive director of the Kane County Water Conservancy District.
Noel says he learned Tilton was looking into developing energy sources. Despite being fundamentally skeptical of man-made climate change, Noel says he found a nuclear-power presentation by Patrick Moore, former president of Greenpeace’s Canadian branch, “very compelling. … I’m not a proponent of global warming, but I’m a proponent of clean air,” he ssays. According to both men, Noel approached Tilton and, in Tilton’s words, Noel “basically said, ‘You know, if you ever decide to do anything, I’ve got water.’ ”
Tilton says he saw a business opportunity. According to Noel, once Tilton began negotiating for the water lease, Noel stepped back from the discussions to avoid impropriety. This didn’t stop critics and the media from decrying a blatant conflict of interest throughout much of 2007.
So far, Noel says his conservancy has only received a $10,000 down payment on the lease pending a decision by the state engineer. No benefit, monetary or otherwise, will come to him personally. If the deal goes through, the district will receive $1 million per year and, in 40 years, will have the option of recovering the water rights. Noel also feels the strain of urbanization and depopulation of rural communities. He says his county “got hosed” when the coal projects were canceled.
In 2007, Noel was chair of the Utilities committee, with Tilton serving as vice-chair. By now, Tilton had met Transition Power co-founder Thomas Retson, previously with GE Nuclear Energy. Nils J. Diaz, former chairman of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission under George W. Bush, joined the team the same year. It was this union that, for Tilton, marked the turning point where he realized his vision could become reality.