The Utah state engineer, a man named Kent Jones, has approved the water rights for the proposed Blue Castle nuclear project in Green River, Utah. The two-reactor plant would be the first nuclear power plant built in the West since the late 1980s. Jones’ decision has caused outrage among environmental and anti-nuclear groups in the West, and justifiably so. The Blue Castle project pretty much sums up everything that’s wrong with today’s nuclear power industry.
First, it’s huge: the twin reactors would produce up to 3,000 megawatts (MW) of power. The future of nuclear power lies in small, modular reactors (SMRs) that are prefabricated, easy to transport, easy to assemble, and easier to win permits for than gargantuan reactors. Recognizing this, the American Nuclear Society, among other groups, is campaigning for new licensing procedures for SMRs that could avoid the absurdly long lead times facing most nuclear-power projects in the United States (see below).
“Big” means “expensive,” and the Blue Castle project is nothing if not costly. It will take on the order of $18 billion to complete the project, including $100 million just to shove it through the approval process. Blue Castle Holdings, needless to say, does not have that kind of cash. In its water-rights application, the company listed as a primary backer a Wall Street company called LeadDog Capital. LeadDog, which Blue Castle said was putting up $30 million for the nuclear project, has been accused in a cease-and-desist petition filed by the Securities and Exchange Commission of running a scam operation. Blue Castle CEO Aaron Tilton, a former Utah state legislator, says that he never “pulled the trigger” on the LeadDog financing and that his company no longer does business with the embattled funder; however Jones, the state engineer, listed the LeadDog funding as primary evidence that Blue Castle “has the financial ability to complete the proposed project.” In interviews with the Salt Lake City Tribune, Jones admitted that he took Blue Castle’s word for that: “It was just a plan presented by them, and we didn’t do a lot of investigation into the plan, about the validity of the plan.”
Even if the money becomes available, Blue Castle is years, if not decades, away from actually producing power. Tilton said his company is readying an Early Site Permit to be submitted to the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) in 2013. The application could take three years to be approved. Then a combined construction and operating license (COL) would be needed, which would add another four years to the process. “The earliest the project could break ground is 2020,” points out Dan Yurman on his nuclear blog, Idaho Samizdat. Nuclear power that might come online sometime in the mid-2020s is not exactly going to help reduce carbon emissions from coal plants in the short term.
Inevitably, there’s the question of water. The state specifically approved Blue Castle’s lease of water rights held by Utah’s San Juan and Kane counties. As with all Western water rights, the San Juan and Kane rights are part of a complicated tangle of competing claims. They are set to expire in 2015 if not put to beneficial use.
“At times, the Blue Castle proposal looks like a water right in search of a project,” remarked High Country News in a 2010 feature on the project.
The design for the reactors at Blue Castle has not been finalized, but they are most likely to be boiling water reactors, which are considered “Generation III+” designs – in other words, hardly a real advance over today’s uranium-fueled light water reactors. There is no plan in place for where nuclear waste from the plant would go.
Finally, the Blue Castle plant would require the construction of massive transmission lines to carry the power to the coastal cities Southern California, the project’s ultimate customers. Most of those lines would cross federal lands, requiring yet more permits – and more years to approval. Yurman calls Blue Castle “a continuation of California’s ‘colonial’ strategy of banning new reactors within its borders while buying nuclear powered electricity from plants in other states.”
As I’ve noted elsewhere, the NRC should not be in the business of sitting for years on grandiose plant proposals, backed by speculative (if not fraudulent) investors, based on obsolete technology, requiring huge amounts of scare water resources and new investment in transmission and distribution facilities. The U.S. nuclear power industry badly needs to move into the 21st century. With Blue Castle, it’s still pursuing the failed strategies of the 20th.