Late Wednesday evening, Utah Seventh District Court Judge George Harmond gave the green light for construction of a nuclear reactor along the Green River to continue. The reactor will sit five miles northwest of the town of Green River in Kane County.
The non-profit organization, HEAL Utah, brought the case against Blue Castle Holdings after Utah State Engineer Kent Jones approved the future usage of 53,000 acre-feet of the Green River’s water to Blue Castle for the purposes of maintaining the nuclear reactor site. HEAL Utah claimed Jones was too quick to approve the transfer of water rights, and did not properly take into consideration that Blue Castle did not have finances in place to construct a reactor, that the water usage of a reactor might hurt others’ ability to access water in the Green, and the impact the removal of 53,000 acre-feet of water from the Green would have on the river’s ecosystem.
Due to the relative scarcity of water in Utah, state law requires that any request for water rights provide a benefit to the citizens of Utah, not impact the ability for other people to use water for previously approved uses, and that the removal or diversion of any water not unreasonably affect the natural environment.
During the course of the trial, Blue Castle presented evidence that its finances, though ambitious, are not impossible to achieve and that it would be reasonable to expect that the project would be completed and become profitable in the future. Blue Castle also noted that the majority of water claims on the Green River take place upstream from the project site, and prior commitments could easily be honored. Their lawyers also argued that existing claims downstream from the project should not see any impact.
It was unclear, however, what impact the removal of such a high amount of water would have on the environment. As of now, there is no evidence that the removal of that amount of water would significantly impact the environment, but a detailed study has yet to take place.
The court was clearly persuaded by this evidence as it made its decision, noting that Blue Castle has so far met its financial obligations with private funds and conducted considerable time and resources to ensure it would make it through the strict water permitting process prior application. On the issue of environmental impact, the court punted, noting that if the planning process were to go forward, federal regulations would require Blue Castle to prove that environmental impacts were minimal before construction could begin.
The court also mentioned in its decision a change in Utah law back in 2008, when the Legislature approved a new law which encouraged the placing of a nuclear power plant in the state. One lawmaker on the hill at that time, Aaron Tilton, is now the President and CEO of Blue Castle.
The court also noted that Utah’s fast growth means that traditional power generation can not keep pace with demand, with some estimations predicting that power shortages could begin as early as 2015, requiring utilities to import electricity into the state. In 2012, Governor Gary Herbert adopted a new energy policy that encourages enough production of electricity to not only meet the state’s needs, but also produce enough power to export to other states for a profit. PacifiCorp, the utility company behind Rocky Mountain Power, estimates that the state will need to import 2,300 megawatts of electricity by 2022 to meet demand. The Blue Castle project would produce an estimated 2,500 megawatts of electricity.
HEAL Utah, which was originally organized with the intention of keeping nuclear materials out of the state, was disappointed by the outcome. Matt Pacenza, HEAL Utah Policy Director, was “baffled” that the project “continues to stumble forward,” noting that “Blue Castle has struggled to attract any investment at all…This judge had a chance to rule that such a speculative project had no right to our precious water, and sadly for the people of Utah, he chose not to.”