Water needs debated during hearing on proposed nuclear plant

Representatives of federal agencies and conservation organizations joined farmers, outfitters, and citizens in protesting against a transfer of water rights that could accommodate the investment of as much as $16 billion in a proposed nuclear power plant near Green River, Utah.

The protests followed presentations from several experts in the fields of nuclear energy and water rights during a hearing held by the Utah Division of Water Rights regarding the water rights transfers.

The experts, affiliated with the water rights transfer applicant Blue Castle Holdings, attempted to assure Assistant State Engineer John Mann and fellow division employees that nuclear power is safe and crucially needed as “base load” for the nation’s power grid.

“Nuclear production cost is the lowest and most stable of thermal base load generation,” said Aaron Tilton, CEO of Blue Castle Holdings. Tilton described “base load” as the amount of power needed to provide constant energy even when solar or wind power energy is not available.

Construction of two 1,500-megawatt power plants would employ an average of 2,000 people for seven years. After that, 1,100 workers would earn an average salary of $85,000 per year, Tilton said, adding that the expected plant life is 60 years.

Tilton said the state would forgive all state levied taxes for 20 years, which could mean a subsidy of $500 million to $1 billion.

“It will lift us out of poverty. [You should] put us humans ahead of fauna and flora,” said Green River Mayor Pat Brady. Several other local officials from Emery and San Juan counties expressed similar views.

The nuclear energy experts presented analyses they said proved that the potential draw of 70 cubic feet per second from the Green River as too small to impact existing water rights, or the ecology of the river. They also said that the water is available and that the new diversion would harm neither existing or pending water rights.

“Trust the system,” said Jerry Olds, a former state engineer now an engineering consultant for Blue Castle. This project is not going to change how Utah administers water law.” Olds described Utah’s policy for water rights as, “first in use is first in right.”

The group, Green River Farmers, expressed concern about safety as well as fears that their water rights might be trumped by power plant needs if the river flow turns out to be not sufficient to satisfy all needs. A local outfitter and a farmer said that river runners already have to “walk their boats” during periods of low flow.

“It looks like… the plant will have negligible impact on the river in isolation,” said Nancy Starks, representing farmers in the Green River companies. ”What about cumulative impacts,” she said, as she asked if financiers are willing to forgo investments if impacts prove to be more negative than the experts predict.

Federal agency representatives and conservationists told the state board that a minimum flow of water must be maintained to prevent the certain native fish from facing possible extinction. If that happens, drastic changes in water use would be required to assure survival of the species, according to Paul Abate of the U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which has filed a letter of protest.

Bart Miller of Western Resource Advocates said a recovery plan was set up 20 years ago by Utah, Wyoming and Colorado, with several conservation organizations, to protect and recover four native fish species. That program sets a minimum required base flow of 1,300 cubic feet per second in the Green River, he said.

“The important timeframe is to look forward,” Miller said, explaining that river flows continue to decline.

Olds said that the U.S. Geologic Survey measuring gage near Green River has a continuous record of flows since 1905. He cited the flows from the past 30 years to demonstrate that river flows are adequate for existing rights and Blue Castle’s proposed withdrawal of 70 cubic feet per second.

The lowest flow in the river, recorded in 2002, was just over 700 cubic feet per second. So the proposed 70 cubic feet per second for Blue Castle amounts to only 10 percent of the lowest flow he anticipates, Olds said,

Professor Tom Hardy, former director of the Utah Water Research Lab, said he does not believe the water transfer presents a problem. He noted that the plant’s reduction of river flow would only add 15 minutes to his float trip down the river.

John Flitton, attorney with HEAL Utah, questioned the project’s financial feasibility, a condition the state engineer must consider when transferring water rights. A nuclear plant in Texas recently experienced cost overruns that exceed what consumers can pay, he said.

He said the Blue Castle proposal sounds more like an investment plan designed to determine what a license to operate is worth. “That raises the specter of speculation,” Flitton said.

David Wright, co-council for Blue Castle, said projects such as the one proposed – which is expected to cost $18 billion – can only get financial commitments, “a piece at a time.

“The array of experts brought here today proves Blue Castle is for real,” he said.

Nils Diaz, former chairman of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, said federal regulations are designed to assure both safety and financial viability. “NRC environmental protection regulations are comprehensive,” he said.

“Simple assurances are not sufficient for this panel to act upon,” said Castle Valley resident Bob Lippman.

But other Grand County residents disagreed. “We have enemies,” said Moab resident Randy Day, who suggested that the power plant is necessary for national security. “When are we going to stand up and do something for our country?”

As the hearing closed, Assistant State Engineer Mann granted the protesters an additional 45 days to review and comment on the material presented by the experts for Blue Castle. He noted that more time might be needed after that for Blue Castle to respond to those comments.

The State Engineer’s office has not set a date for when a final decision will be made on the proposed transfer of water rights from the water conservation districts of San Juan and Kane counties.

ByBy Craig Bigler

contributing writer