|Map of Utah's Green River region|
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.
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.
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
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
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.
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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