Saturday, January 21, 2012

Water rights granted for Utah's Blue Castle project

State engineer completes a two-year process to allocate water for twin nuclear reactors in Green River

Map of Utah's Green River region
The State of Utah has granted water rights to the privately-held Blue Castle project which plans to build a nuclear power station that would generate between 2,200 to 3,000 MW of power at a site in Green River, Utah.  The decision allocates 53,600 acre feet of water a year.  (Blue Castle press release)

Blue Castle CEO Aaron Tilton told the Salt Lake Tribune the decision was expected and that without it the company would not have been able to proceed with its plans.  The reactors are slated to be built on a 1,700 acre parcel in an industrial area of Emery County.  Tilton told the newspaper the plants could cost $18 billion.

Blue Castle officials said they are in the process of preparing an Early Site Permit (ESP) to be submitted to the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) in 2013.  Assuming that deadline is met, review of that application could take about three years or by sometime in 2016 at the earliest.

Time line to revenue service

Assuming the ESP is approved, and Blue Castle's investors have another $50-100 million to spend, the firm would still need to apply for a combined construction and operating license (COL) for the twin reactor project.  The NRC's review time for that process is about four years which means the earliest the project could break ground is 2020.  That time frame might be shorter depending on how things go with the ESP and how much of what's in it can be incorporated into the COL.

CEO Tilton told the Salt Lake City Tribune he thought the firm could break ground by 2016 and have the plants in revenue service by 2020.  These are very optimistic dates and don't match the experience with the NRC for Southern's twin AP1000s in Georgia.  Even with an NRC approved ESP in place, the process of applying for a COL would still push the firm toward breaking ground several years later than Tilton's estimate.

It isn't clear from the projected power generation numbers whether the Blue Castle Project has settled on a reactor design. With former General Electric executives in senior management positions, it is possible a COL could reference the new GE ESBWR, a 1,500 MW reactor.

 That design, which is still undergoing safety certification review at the NRC, has been referenced by DTE's Fermi III project and Dominion's plans for a third unit at North Anna.  A smaller configuration of 2,200 MW might indicate interest in the 1,100 MW Westinghouse AP1000.  Either way, the Blue Castle project appears to envision building two reactors at the site.

Blue Castle claims it has signed power agreements with 18 utilities that would be investors in the project.  Company officials told the Utah news media they would retain a minority interest in the plant.

Power hungry utilities in California are likely customers for the plant's output. This is a continuation of California's "colonial" strategy of banning new reactors within its borders while buying nuclear powered electricity from plants in other states. The City of Los Angeles cancelled its interest in the 900 MW third unit of a coal fired plant in Utah because of local and state laws in California prohibiting investment in projects that add greenhouse gases to the atmosphere.

The good news for the quality of Utah's air is that nuclear power plants are carbon emission free and won't pollute the skies or add to global warming.  Had the coal fired plant been built, Utah residents would have seen dirty air as a price they would pay to ship power to southern California.

Water rights fight not over

Opponents of the decision to grant water rights to the project said they would fight it every step of the way. Matt Pecenza, policy director of HEAL, an anti-nuclear group based on Salt Lake City, issued a statement that said the group would pursue its fight against the project.

HEAL opposed the decision by the State Engineer to grant the water rights.  He told the Salt Lake City Tribune, "the good news is the project still has many obstacles ahead of it."

State Engineer Kent Jones said his office granted the water rights after a two-year review process. He said the review found that the Blue Castle Project would not harm other water users, wasn't speculative, and that there was sufficient water available even during a drought.

Jones defended the process to make the decision

“We have listened to and very much appreciate the concerns raised by those in the local community and others,” said Jones.  “Those concerns helped us look carefully and critically at the proposal as we considered the appropriate action on these applications.”

Almost 4.4 million acre-feet of water flows by the city of Green River every year.  Blue Castle is seeking 53,600 acre-feet of that water to be allocated for its project.

“That amount of water is not a lot on the Green River,” said Jones.  “But it is a significant portion of the water Utah has left to develop on the Colorado River and a significant new diversion from the Green River where efforts are underway to provide habitat for recovery of endangered fish.”

Approval of the application does not guarantee sufficient water will always be available from the river to operate the plant.  Plant design will need to address the possibility of interruptions in water supply

Environmental groups in Utah along with tourism business interests have rallied against past proposals for power generation projects that need large amounts of water. One of their tactics has been to claim that the water withdrawals will harm endangered species.  This claim brings the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service into the picture.

State Engineer Jones wrote in his decision that river flows can fall below targets set by state and federal agencies to preserve endangered species. And he wrote that the decision to approve the water rights for the nuclear reactors could make things worse. An interactive map of Utah endangered species in the Green River region shows listed foxes, ferrets, toads, and other critters in the area.

Opponents of the plant have also claimed that it will compete for water with the Central Utah Project which supplies water to Utah's urban areas that stretch along the Wasatch Front from Logan and Salt Lake City on the North to Provo to the South.  Much of the state's population lives along this corridor.  In what sounds like a scare tactic, opponents claim that the Blue Castle Project would complete with water for this population in a drought year.

The State Engineer disagreed with this assessment in his decision pointing out the water rights for the plant would not take precedence over those of the Central Utah Project.

Outlook for the project

The Blue Castle Project is the only credible new nuclear reactor project on the NRC's radar located west of the Mississippi.  In Idaho AEHI, a penny stock firm, is fighting an uphill battle to convince investors, local government officials, and the Securities & Exchange Commission that it really intends to build a nuclear power plant in Payette County north of Boise, ID.

In its early days in 2007 the Blue Castle Project suffered from a splash effect from AEHI's antics.  CEO Tilton had a rocky start early in his career bumping heads as a state legislator with the Utah Republican party which declined to endorse him for a second term.

Blue Castle's new found success in pursuit of water rights and commitment to complete an ESP have distanced the firm from that image.

Raising the $18 billion to build two nuclear reactors, and everything that goes with them, remains a major challenge. Blue Castle still intends to sell off most of its interest in the project to a consortium of utilities who would then have to raise the $18 billion the firm says would be need to build up to 3,000 MW of generating capacity.

In the past Tilton tried and failed to get the Utah State Legislature to approve the principle of "construction while in progress" or CWIP. It means that rate payers of the utilities that are investors in the new reactors would pay for construction costs as they are incurred rather than after the plant enters revenue service.  Of course, the more utilities Blue Castle lines up participate in the project, the more likely Blue Castle might have the clout to go back to the legislature to try again.

Given the amount of power the plant would generate, it is likely it's utility investors would also have to build new 345KVtransmission and distribution infrastructure across much of Utah which is largely public lands managed by two agencies of the Federal government.  Every one of those rights-of-way for power lines will require an environmental assessment prepared under the regulatory requirements of the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA).  (See EIA map of current power lines.)

In short, winning the approvals for the water rights is just the start of a long road toward construction.   Getting the regulatory approvals that will allow the plant to be built is half the battle. The other parts will be raising the money to build the reactors, building them on time and within budget, and completing the power lines to wheel the power to customers.

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Friday, January 20, 2012

A win for Vermont Yankee

Federal District Court rules against efforts by the State of Vermont to assert regulatory authority over radiological safety issues

scales of justiceEfforts by the State of Vermont to regulate a nuclear reactor within its borders were struck down Jan 19 by U.S. District Court Judge J. Gavan  Murtha in Brattleboro. He ruled in three instances against the state which had sought to shut down Entergy's Vermont Yankee reactor which is located on the banks of the Connecticut River.

His ruling follows a three-day trial last September. The decision was fast tracked to insure it would be handed down prior to the expiration of the current license on March 12, 2012.

Murtha wrote in his 102 page decision that the State of Vermont could not use the legislature's refusal to issue a Certificate of Public Good as a basis to force the reactor to shut down. He said that state law is preempted by the Atomic Energy Act which assigns radiological safety regulation to the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission. The judge emphasized that the legislature was focused on "radiological safety concerns" which are the province of the NRC.

A second item in the judge's ruling enjoined the State of Vermont from using its assertion it has authority over management of spent fuel at the site as a means to force the plant to shut down.

Finally, the judge said the legislation could not make a condition of continued operation contingent on the existence of a below-wholesale-market power purchase agreement between Plaintiffs and Vermont utilities, or requiring Vermont Yankee to sell power to Vermont utilities.

Read the full story exclusively at ANS Nuclear Cafe online now.

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Thursday, January 19, 2012

Covert bombing kills Iranian nuclear scientist

It is the latest in a series of deadly attacks

Uranium symbolAn Iranian nuclear scientist was killed in Tehran Jan 11 by a bomb  magnetically attached to his car. It is the fifth such attack in the past two years. The scientist was identified as Mostafa Ahmadi Roshan, age 32, who was a mid-level manager at the Natanz uranium enrichment plant.

The attack came one day after it was reported that that Iran had launched uranium enrichment production at its underground facility at Fordow near the city of Qum. There Iran is reported to be enriching the uranium to 20% U235 which is the boundary between commercial use and weapons use. Iran has been making 20% enriched uranium at Natanz, about 400 km south of Tehran (250 miles), since February 2010.

In a related development, the Wall Street Journal reported that two days later on Jan 13 that Iran agreed to allow a high-level team of IAEA nuclear inspectors enter the country Jan 28. The delegation will be headed by the agency's chief weapons inspector, Herman Nackaerts.

It is not clear whether the Iranian government will let the inspectors visit nuclear sites, underground uranium enrichment facilities, and interview officials the U.N. agency believes may head a nuclear-weapons program.

The combination of three events occurring within a few days of each other indicates the intensity of the issues surrounding Iran's nuclear programs.  Read the full story exclusively at ANS Nuclear Cafe online now.

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Sunday, January 15, 2012

Books about Nuclear Energy - 2012 List

This blog post is an update of the list posted in October 2010

I have revised the resources tab on top at my blog and have created a new list titled "Books about Nukes"  The link will open a new window.  The list will be updated over time. The date of this edition of the list is: January 15, 2012. 
Nuclear energy is the
stuff stars are made of

This list is intended to reach the NON-TECHNICAL reader.  This means the book must explain nuclear energy for commercial use, and closely related issues, e.g., uranium mining, spent fuel management, etc., in a clear and intelligent manner that is accessible to someone who has no technical background in the industry.

I would especially like to hear about books that would be readable by a high school senior or freshman / sophomore college student interested in a career in the nuclear industry.

Comments and suggestions for additional listings are welcome.

Before you comment, please check the current list.  I only need a few volumes in each category.

Please be complete with title, author, ISBN number, date of publication, and a link to an online bookseller of your choice or the publisher/author website.

Want to know more? Read a book on nuclear energy and share it with your friends. While it won’t compete with cocktail chatter about ‘Dancing with the Stars’, in fact, nuclear energy is the stuff stars are made of.

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Note: I do not make any money with referrals to Amazon from this list. The list is not linked to the tower ads from Amazon on the main blog page.  The Amazon listing is used so that a reader can extract the ISBN number if they want to get it from their preferred bookseller or borrow it for free from their local library.

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