The first thing you notice is the landscape. Utah’s Emery County seems barren, the gray dirt streaked with black. Misshapen desert shrubs crouch and moan in the wind. To the west, the distant splendor of Capitol Reef seems small and stunted. To the east, the Book Cliffs impose their massive silhouette over a small town of just under 1,000 residents.
Green River’s teal-and-white community center sits just off the bucolic Main Street. Most afternoons, staff and volunteers are busy preparing for the after-school rush of children who make use of the center as a Boys & Girls Club. This afternoon, a windy day in March, Nancy Dunham meets a City Weekly reporter at the community center to explain her opposition to a proposed power plant that would sit just four miles from her rural home.
Dunham, a melon farmer who’s lived in Green River since 1955, believes the area she calls a “sanctuary” is being compromised for money and political power. Hands folded on the table and clear eyes staring earnestly, she asks, “Why give up a beautiful, virgin area, one of the few left in the country, for somebody’s dollar?”
Larry Carter, a Vietnam veteran, community center volunteer and Green River resident since 1968, enters the room with a quick, hearty laugh to join Dunham. In his thick Southern accent, he gladly shares his opinions on the plant: “They’ve got no business building a nuclear plant at the bottom of that canyon,” he says. “I’m not against nuclear energy, but I think there’s lots of places they can put it besides there.”
Entrepreneur Aaron Tilton feels differently. He sees Green River as “the premier location in the West” for his company, Blue Castle Holdings, to build two nuclear power reactors set to come online in 2023. At a cost ranging from $13 billion to $16 billion, and creating between 825 and 1,100 jobs, the plant would generate 3,000 megawatts while providing a much-needed economic surge for a rural southern Utah town where opportunity hasn’t knocked since the 1950s, when uranium was king.
Zina Willard, deputy director of the community center, steps out of the bustle in the kitchen to voice the isolation felt by many in Green River. “We’re kind of out in the middle of nowhere here. … We need all the help we can get,” she says.
Most Green River residents agree with Willard and express excitement at the boom the plant could bring to their town: jobs, an expanded tax base and a new industry. “I don’t really see the downside,” said Keith Brady, vice president of the Green River Chamber of Commerce, even as news of Japan’s disastrous nuclear-power-plant trouble is being broadcast from across the Pacific.
Beyond Green River, there’s the promise of plentiful, carbon-emissions-free power. The American nuclear-energy industry has a seemingly unparalleled safety record, almost no carbon footprint and support from personalities as diverse as Greenpeace founder Patrick Moore and General Electric CEO Jeff Immelt.
But skeptics see a deal with a devil dressed in green. While nuclear energy looks clean and profitable, critics argue its purported benefits are misleading. Cheap energy prices once the plant is running hide huge construction costs. Focus on negligible carbon emissions conceals grave environmental hazards: meltdowns, fallout and radioactive waste.
The first major hurdle on the way to Utah’s first-ever commercial nuclear generator is a decision by the state engineer of the Utah Division of Water Rights, who must decide whether Blue Castle will be allowed to divert the annual 53,600 acre-feet of water necessary for the plant from the Green River. (An acre-foot is the amount of water covering 1 acre to a depth of 1 foot—roughly 326,000 gallons, or 43,560 cubic feet of water. The average U.S. household uses about 127,400 gallons annually—a little over a third of an acre-foot—according to the American Water Works Association.)
Just over half of Blue Castle’s water will come from Kane County; the rest will be diverted from San Juan County. The leases to the water rights have already been purchased, but the state engineer will decide whether or not the plant is feasible and can environmentally justify the diversions.
According to assistant state engineer John Mann, the division has been gathering information for 15 months and will continue to do so until the state engineer is “comfortable [with] making a decision.”
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.
In 2009, Transition Power consolidated its development activities under the banner of Blue Castle Holdings Inc., named for a 5,800-foot-tall Blue Castle summit that would overlook the power generators located about five miles west-northwest of Green River in Emery County.
Tilton says that while water was a primary consideration in choosing a site for his plant, the site is desirable for other reasons. Low seismic activity and access to the electrical grid, freeway and railroad also drew him there. He says six organizations scouted the site for a nuclear power plant in the late 1970s, but suffered the backlash from the partial meltdown at Three-Mile Island in 1979 that led to the evacuation of 140,000 people. That accident, which terrified a nation and laid bare glaring holes in emergency planning, put nuclear power on hold in this country for three decades.
When interviewed in June 2010 on industry Website Nuclear Street, Tilton claimed opposition to the project within the community was nonexistent. He said, “Emery County has been very supportive and completed zoning changes and passed official resolutions supporting the building of nuclear power in Emery County. The City of Green River has also voted to allow the project to use land the city owns on the banks of the Green River for the intake structure for the water supply to the plant. The local populations are our biggest fans. … We have unanimous support from the county commission, both Republican and Democrat, [as well as from] the mayor and council of Green River City.”
Tilton’s friends at the Legislature did not disappoint, either. In 2009, in passing the Utah Senate Joint Resolution 16, the Legislature encouraged “investor-owned and municipally owned utilities and power marketers and traders to consider participating in a nuclear-power project in Utah.”
Even governors Huntsman and Herbert climbed aboard. In 2010, Herbert signed State Bill 242, which created tax incentives for alternative energy that included “nuclear fuel” in its definitions. Huntsman signed a similar bill in 2009. The tax incentive may rebate up to 100 percent of new state taxes paid by a new nuclear-power plant for 20 years.
It would appear that, politically at least, Tilton had sewn things up.
But the plant sparked debate beyond political circles. The allotted daily diversion from the Green River is equivalent to roughly 140 acre-feet, according to Jerry Olds. Blue Castle argues this is a small fraction of Green River’s average daily flow. Many Green River residents aren’t worried about the water, either. Tilton has assured them he won’t interfere with their existing water rights. Water-rights holders could even benefit, Tilton says, since excess water could be leased to the plant.
In 2010, after a near 30-year pause on the construction of new nuclear plants, the future of nuclear power brightened. Obama set aside $8 billion in federal loan guarantees for two Georgia plants, and Sen. George Voinovich, R-Ohio, introduced legislation “to further enable a nuclear renaissance,” which included a declaration of nuclear as clean and eligible for all tax breaks available to renewable energy sources. Other benefits offered to the industry included construction tax credits and tax breaks to anyone seeking certification as a nuclear engineer. (While the bill never reached a vote in the Senate, many provisions live on in various acts before the present Congress.) Construction on a second reactor at the Watts Bar plant in Tennessee resumed in 2007 after a 22-year suspension. Crews broke ground on new reactors in Georgia for the first time since 1974.
The crisis at Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant following the March 11 earthquake and tsunami has cast doubt on this much-vaunted renaissance. Rep. Ed Markey, D-Mass., and Sen. Joe Lieberman, D-Conn., are calling for a halt to any new nuclear plants until the disaster is fully understood.
Tilton doesn’t think his project will be affected. “Since the commercialization of nuclear power in the U.S. in 1957,” he explains, “[there have been] no injuries, let alone a fatality, from any exposure to radiation from a nuclear power plant.”
When speaking about the Fukushima disaster, he emphasizes that no member of the public has yet been harmed by fallout from the meltdowns. In a worst-case scenario, he says, “If you just evacuate people within a certain mile radius, there really isn’t any effect.” Some 80,000 Japanese residents of the evacuation zone might beg to differ: Their government has made it illegal to enter the 12.5-mile mandatory evacuation zone. Evacuees won’t be able to return to their homes for up to nine months.
For Green River residents, the appeal of the plant lies in the jobs generated by the project. Almost 2,000 workers will be needed during the five- to seven-year construction phase. Since there will be more workers needed than available in town, the company will have to attract labor from elsewhere. Once the plant is built, it will require around 1,000 permanent employees. Many hope that even if the construction workers don’t stay, the infrastructure and money will. At present, Green River doesn’t have a hospital, a pharmacy or even a full-time physician.
Willard hopes that “with the right push … we might get recognized enough for people to say, ‘Oh my heck, we’re here!’ ” Other Green River citizens talk about wanting their kids to be able to find work in the town where they were raised.
Keith Brady dreams that Green River “could become the biggest city in Emery County.” Workers, even temporary ones, will bring in other businesses and maybe even other industries. He’s met Tilton and trusts his business sense, describing him as “a good guy [and] excited about the project.” Brady also has confidence the permitting process will be rigorous enough to ensure the safety of his community.
More Money, More Problems
During a review of Blue Castle’s early site permit application, the NRC will explore the safety of the site, any environmental-protection concerns and emergency planning. Once granted, the permit is valid for 10 to 20 years, may be renewed for another 10 to 20 years and can legally be sold. During this phase, the NRC holds meetings for public comment on the application.
According to the NRC, Blue Castle’s permit-application review will likely take place between now and 2014. Before breaking ground, Blue Castle would also have to obtain a combined construction and operating license, which reviews the selected reactor design, environmental impacts and operation and construction protocols, as well as the prospective operator’s qualifications. Tilton estimates the permits will cost at least $100 million and expects to have both licenses in five years.
But residents Dunham and Carter don’t feel that the short-term benefits are worth it. “We’re too nearsighted,” Dunham exclaims, frustrated. “Twenty years from now, we’re going to be sorry [we built it]. We don’t need to look to this plant just for jobs.”
Bob Quist of Moki Mac River Expeditions relies on the Green River for his livelihood and knows its changeable nature well. In 1981, he claims, the river ran at less than 700 cubic feet per second all summer. If the Blue Castle plant had been around then, it would have consumed one-tenth of the river’s water all summer long.
Relying on information from pro-nuclear trade groups, Matt Pacenza, HEAL’s policy director, says nuclear energy uses three to four times more water than other energy sources. “Utah is the second-driest state in the country,” he says. “Why would we use the power source that uses the most water?”
Moreover, “We’re only having a conversation about this today because of massive government intervention,” Pacenza says. This intervention comes in the form of loan guarantees, which, he explains, essentially make the government a co-signer on the loan: “If the project fails and doesn’t get built, you and I will pay up to 80 percent of the cost of the project.” According to HEAL and other nuclear watchdogs, projects like this are often delayed or canceled altogether. Even with the promise of federal loan guarantees, builders of nuclear reactors frequently find themselves in financial trouble.
Kent Udell, professor in mechanical engineering and director of the Sustainability Research Center at the University of Utah agrees with Pacenza. “If you take away the subsidies, they really don’t compete with the cleaner forms [of energy].” He estimates nuclear costs to be around $7,000 to $12,000 per kilowatt produced. He places solar at $2,500 per kilowatt and geothermal at $1,800 per kilowatt.
Tilton is quick to point out that he doesn’t find loan guarantees “helpful,” since they only come into effect if the company defaults. He says that while Blue Castle policy states “the least government involvement is best,” he can’t control the methods his future partners might choose to finance their portions of the project, including loan guarantees and raised rates.
Despite the project’s projected $13 billion to $16 billion start-up price tag, Tilton confirms that using private equity from him, his partners and investors in addition to income from investments in New York-based hedge funds and subsidiary Willow Creek LLC means Blue Castle won’t need to raise more capital to finance the early site permit application or the combined operating and construction license.
Willow Creek, headquartered in Grand Junction, Co. and acquired by Blue Castle in December 2010, builds and maintains natural-gas and crude-oil pipelines. In a Blue Castle press release announcing the sale, President Russ Fowles said he he “immediately understood the value of being involved with the new nuclear project.” Tilton views Willow Creek as not only as a source of $30 million per year in revenue, but also as a resource for the overall construction project.
Tilton says once both permits have been approved, other utility companies will join Blue Castle in ownership of the plant. The utilities will help pay for the construction costs. Blue Castle will retain 10 to 20 percent equity. While Tilton says he and his team plan on participating in the operational side, the entity that operates the plant will ultimately be named by the shareholders. Because of SEC regulations, Tilton can’t speculate to the media what these shares might be worth, but they have caught someone’s attention. He says that 18 utilities have already expressed interest in 4,500 megawatts—1 1/2 times what the plant expects to produce.
Kent Udell’s wife, Cherise, is president and founder of Utah Moms for Clean Air. Given her group’s focus on the state’s poor air quality, one might think Utah Moms would support a low-carbon option like nuclear power. But Cherise is concerned. “They’re low emissions until they have an accident. … I don’t think that’s an appropriate risk,” she says.
Then there is that debate so familiar to Utahns: the issue of nuclear waste. Used rods of uranium are radioactive and dangerous and remain so for centuries. The Yucca Mountain nuclear-waste repository has been abandoned by the Obama administration as a solution for the storage of high-level waste. As a result, any waste generated by the Blue Castle facility would have to be stored on site for up to 100 years. Tilton wants to see the spent fuel eventually reprocessed and reused, as a considerable amount of energy still resides in the used uranium rods. No reprocessing facilities exist in the United States, but Tilton doesn’t see a problem with the storage of the used fuel. He asserts that it’s safe and has a low environmental impact. According to Tilton, all the used fuel from 60 years of plant operations will fit on one and a half acres.
“I don’t think [this storage] makes sense with Utah’s history of opposing the storage of high-level waste,” says Sarah Fields, longtime activist with Uranium Watch. Sitting in her Moab office, she raises her hands and gazes upward, as if looking at a great weight threatening to drop. “The whole community is under the weight of that reactor operation for decades,” she says.
Fields is convinced the project will never get off the ground. “What the NRC does not like is an application that does not have all the [required] information,” she says. She recites a considerable list of bureaus and agencies the NRC will have to consult while exploring the permit, including the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation. The Bureau of Reclamation, she adds, is currently engaged in a two-year water-balance study that might result in changes to Utah’s water allocation from the Colorado Compact, which divvies up the river water among the states in the Colorado Basin. Fields, Quist and several experts all agree that the Colorado River, of which the Green River is a main tributary, is greatly over-allocated under the compact.
The ultimate decision now lies in the hands of the state engineer. Tilton expects a ruling on the diversion by the end of this year. He foresees no trouble with either the Division of Water Rights or the NRC. He points out that every early site permit applied for since 2007 has been granted. Tilton and his associates will pour $100 million, all private money, into the site before breaking ground. “We wouldn’t be doing that if it wasn’t really secure,” he says. Noel is a little less confident. He says the application has taken almost a year longer than most. If it passes the state engineer’s muster, he gives it better odds, but still doesn’t regard the plant as a certainty.
Assistant state engineer John Mann knows a decision approving the diversion will draw the ire of activists, while a rejection might provoke the company to protect its investment. “We’re most likely going to end up being sued by either party,” he says. Add this to the five-year permitting process and projected five to seven years of construction, and it becomes clear that Utah will have a long wait for nuclear power. Meanwhile, Nancy Dunham marvels at the astonishing amounts of money being poured into the project to begin the early site permit application at the NRC, hundreds of miles from Green River. Turning to Larry Carter, she remarks, “Imagine what we could do with that $30 million.”