Company hails Utah ruling on nuke plant; appeal eyed

The company seeking to build a nuclear plant near Green River, Utah, is calling last week’s court approval of its water source a major milestone for the project.

Meanwhile, the plaintiffs who had legally challenged the state’s approval of water for Blue Castle Holdings’ project say they are considering an appeal in the case.

In a Thanksgiving Eve ruling, Utah Seventh Judicial District Court Judge George Harmond upheld the decision by State Engineer Kent Jones allowing the company to withdraw 53,600 acre-feet of water a year from the Green River, primarily for cooling the proposed plant.

“Blue Castle is now the first new nuclear site in the Western U.S. with an approved water source, the single most important asset for deployment of a new nuclear power project,” the company said in a news release this week.

The company’s chief executive officer, Aaron Tilton, said in the release that the ruling “is a major de-risking milestone” for the project.

“It provides future utility participants greater certainty that the major asset, water for the deployment of a new nuclear plant, has been secured economically.”

Matt Pacenza, policy director for the HEAL Utah environmental group, the lead plaintiff in the case, said his group and other plaintiffs including environmental nonprofits, small businesses and individual homeowners will be conferring to decide whether to spend the considerable money on legal work that an appeal would require.

Otherwise, they can continue to challenge the project through public comments during the protracted federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission review process.

Investors, demand

But meanwhile, Pacenza notes how hard a time Blue Castle Holdings has had trying to find utilities interested in investing in the project.

“They’ve had zero success so far, so we continue to be extremely skeptical that this thing is going to move forward,” he said.

Blue Castle Holdings has spent $17.5 million so far on the ongoing NRC Early Site Permit process, which “resolves site safety, environmental protection, and emergency preparedness issues independent of a specific nuclear plant design,” Harmond wrote in his ruling.

That process alone is expected to cost $50 million, and the total project cost is expected to be $15 billion to $20 billion. However, Harmond wrote that the company “has demonstrated an ability to secure funding and capital as needed, on a step-by-step basis,” and that there’s reason to believe it has the financial ability to complete the project.

He also cited increasing demand for electricity projected by Rocky Mountain Power, producer of the majority of power in the state, a failure by the utility to identify new sources for that demand growth as of 2011 and anticipated importation of power into the state as a result.

“That’s probably the part of the decision I find most sort of just flabbergasting,” Pacenza said.

He said Rocky Mountain Power in fact has a plan to meet future demands, and that it doesn’t involve nuclear power. The utility repeatedly has said it’s not interested in nuclear power, he said.

Blue Castle Holdings didn’t refer to the utility in its news release but stated, “The addition of new nuclear electricity generation will fit the Utah regional markets very well by the projected commercial operation date in 2024.”

Pacenza points to the high upfront costs of nuclear, but Blue Castle Holdings say it can play an important role as coal-fired plants close, and given the future price uncertainty associated with using natural gas as a source of electric power.

Economic impact

The Green River plant could increase electricity generated in Utah by about 50 percent, adding about 2,200 to 3,000 megawatts of installed electrical capacity, while using less than 1 percent of the state’s current water diversion, the company says.

It also projects that the plant would employ about 1,000 permanent full-time employees for 60 years, with more than 2,500 working on the estimated six-year construction phase.

“A recent study showed that a nuclear plant contributes about $535 million annually to the local economy,” the company said.

Harmond noted in his ruling the support for the nuclear plant, which would be Utah’s first, from the Utah legislature, the city of Green River and Emery County, where it would be located.

He also voiced confidence that neither the NRC nor the state’s Radiation Control Board would allow the project to “proceed in a manner which will be detrimental to the public welfare or safety,” and said federal environmental reviews would address concerns such as impacts to the Green River and endangered fish.

Pacenza said attorneys for the plaintiffs don’t think Harmond was allowed “to essentially punt tougher decisions to a federal process.”

“I think that would be one of the things we’d look at” as possible grounds for an appeal, he said.

Said Tilton, “We recognize our responsibility for strong environmental stewardship throughout the lifetime of the project, including working diligently to assure protection of the Green River environment and endangered species.”


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