A beautiful day in the ‘nuclear’ neighborhood?
Editor’s note: Krystyn Hartman, the former publisher of Grand Valley Magazine, will be writing a weekly column for The Daily Sentinel, covering topics ranging from energy to the arts.
Let’s talk about Blue Castle Holdings’ Green River $18 billion nuclear power plant project. The timing’s right: We just celebrated National Nuclear Energy Week.
Until the past few years, Utah was a net exporter of electricity, but no longer. Utah’s power generating mix is nearly 85 percent coal in an aging infrastructure. And nuclear power qualifies as a zero carbon emissions source.
“There won’t be any new coal-fired plants built in Utah,” said Aaron Tilton, CEO of Blue Castle and former two-term Utah state representative. I spoke to him by phone Wednesday. “We’ve got national parks throughout the state with Class 1 air quality standards now. Wind and solar aren’t enough, and with natural gas you still have greenhouse (gas) emissions. So what’s left? Nuclear power.”
Tilton’s partners and executive team include former state and national energy regulators, including former U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission chairman Nils Diaz. Former GE executives are also on board. GE, along with Hitachi and Westinghouse, is a leader in nuclear power technologies, and all have generous federal contracts.
Talk about covering your bases. Tilton, only 39, may seem brash at first glance, but his confidence is grounded in a long-term vision with a clear grasp of economic and energy realities — like it or not.
“We’re losing the entire generation of nuclear science and policy leaders,” Tilton said, pointing out that he is the youngest member of Blue Castle’s management team. “We absolutely need to take advantage of their skills and industry knowledge while we can, and we need to learn from them all we can.”
In December 2010, Blue Castle purchased Grand Junction-based Willow Creek Companies, which will be a major player in the construction phase of the Green River project. Willow Creek is in the business of construction, replacement and repair of natural gas pipelines, oil pipelines and storage facilities in Colorado, Utah, Wyoming, North Dakota and New Mexico.
Yes, that means jobs, while revenues generated from Willow Creek’s oil and gas work will contribute to funding of the plant.
Not only is Blue Castle vertically integrating its construction with a Grand Junction base, but Utah’s state incentives for renewable and nontraditional energy projects include a whopping 100 percent tax-free benefit for the first 20 years. Utah has “the same incentives across the board; we want all of it here,” Tilton said.
Although Blue Castle has yet to declare a specific plant design “type,” any technology that uses less water could prove extremely valuable, even with requisite standard water rights secured. And the U.S. Department of Energy introduced a draft funding opportunity last week to establish cost-sharing agreements with private industry to support the design and licensing of small modular nuclear reactors.
They’re looking at close to $40 million each for two designs, including gas-cooled technologies that use considerably less water than traditional processes.
And there’s another twist in the plot. Used nuclear fuel might be stored onsite for up to 100 years. Not only would that reduce transportation risks and costs, but that fuel could possibly be reprocessed — if and when the federal government reverses its ban on reprocessing. After all, the used fuel retains up to 95 percent of its energy. And as it turns out, the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission officially revisited the idea of reprocessing nearly a decade ago, even holding public meetings on the topic during the past three years.
Last year’s DOE Office of Nuclear Energy budget includes hundreds of millions of dollars in grants and loan guarantees for research, development, and cost-sharing for new nuclear power plants. And that doesn’t include the millions more spent in international joint-ventures and partnerships to develop nuclear power plants around the world.
The Blue Castle project has been in motion for more than six years, with no sign of letting up. Is that a good thing or not?
Either way, there’s enough money and attention on a nuclear future — locally, regionally, nationally and globally — to warrant adding nuclear literacy to our energy repertoire. Stay tuned. Our nuclear neighborhood is one to watch.