Utahns divided on nuclear debate

By By Arthur Raymond

By Arthur Raymond

Utah needs to continue considering nuclear power as a possible carbon-free energy alternative to minimize dangers associated with the state’s warming climate.

This was part of the message delivered to a committee of state lawmakers yesterday by Dianne Nielson, Gov. Jon Huntsman’s energy adviser.

The statement mirrors Huntsman’s continued stance that nuclear power should continue to remain on a list of energy alternatives for Utah.

But Tim Wagner, energy coordinator for the Utah chapter of the Sierra Club, said he believes Huntsman’s position could change. The Sierra Club, like many environmental groups, is opposed to nuclear power because of environmental concerns associated with power generation and waste disposal.

“Once the governor looks at the issue and what’s involved, I think he’ll see that the complexities of nuclear power do not fit in Utah’s future,” Wagner said.

Scientific evaluations of Utah’s climate, requested by Huntsman’s Blue Ribbon Advisory Council on Climate Change, have indicated a trend of worsening climate conditions with predictions of higher temperatures, drought and an atmosphere that could pose serious health risks. Greenhouse gases released by fossil fuels are causing this dangerous warming trend, according to the council. Two reports issued to the council addressed methods to intervene in these trends, one focusing on efficiency and conservation issues and the other evaluating clean-energy alternatives for the state.

Wagner, who sits on the council, said that the option of nuclear power was discussed by the panel, but he and others do not believe it poses a viable solution to meet Huntsman’s goal of a statewide 20 percent energy efficiency increase by 2015. Wagner said that there is a contingent of council members who would like nuclear power to continue to be evaluated.

In the report addressing clean-energy options for the state, nuclear power was not mentioned. The report focuses on solar, wind, biomass and geothermal power generation as the most practical alternatives to fossil fuel power sources. Utah gets about 95 percent of its electricity from coal-fired plants — one of the largest sources of greenhouse gas emissions.

Nuclear power has, however, found its way into the arena of debate about Utah’s power future.

Utah Rep. Aaron Tilton, R-Springville, is a partner in Transition Power Development LLC. His company has secured a contract for water in Kane County and announced its intentions of developing two 1,500-megawatt nuclear power generating units in the area. The water contract, for 30,000 acre-feet of water annually, is an essential first step in the development. Nuclear power generation requires a constant, high-volume water source for cooling purposes.

Tilton recently testified before a legislative committee on utilities, raising questions about conflict of interest because of Tilton’s dual role as a legislator and a power developer. He is also a member of Huntsman’s climate council.

Tilton, who argued for the council to review nuclear power as a carbon-free energy alternative, acknowledged a “hesitance among some of the members to evaluate that specific option.” That hesitance, however, has not changed Tilton’s stance on the issue.

“Nuclear power is now, and will continue to be, a safe option to address Utah’s future power needs,” Tilton said.

He said the decision about what is the right solution to Utah’s environmental concerns and increasing power demands should lie in the hands of the voters, not the government.

Voters are evenly split on the issue of nuclear power development in Utah, according to a recent The Salt Lake Tribune poll.

Tilton said the poll indicates that there is significant support for his project and that “the average, everyday person understands that we need options besides coal. Nuclear power should be one of those options.”

The next step in Tilton’s development effort is to secure a purchase or lease contract for a potential site. He said he expects this to be completed in “the near future.”

The Healthy Environment Alliance of Utah held a panel discussion Nov. 2 to address the issues surrounding nuclear development, global warming and Utah’s energy future.

Kent Udell, a chair of the mechanical engineering department who sat on the panel, said that one of the biggest drawbacks to nuclear development in Utah is the state’s arid climate.

“If we have nuclear power plants in place in Utah, we’ll need to cool them. The water requirements will become a big issue,” Udell said.

Udell also discussed the environmental footprints of other energy sources, such as solar, geothermal, wind and biomass, noting their relatively small impacts. He included mention of nuclear power, in some scenarios, also representing a relatively low footprint.

Panel member Arjun Makhijani presented statistics illustrating what would be required for nuclear power development to impact the rate of carbon emissions in the United States.

“In order for nuclear power to replace coal in the U.S., one nuclear plant would have to be built every six days for 40 years,” said Makhijani, president of the Institute for Energy and Environmental Research.

“Cookie-cutter nuclear power plants are not a good idea,” he added.

Cost issues also figure prominently in comparing nuclear power to other fossil fuel alternatives.

Peter Bradford, former U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commissioner, said that the current estimated cost for a 1,000-megawatt nuclear facility is in the range of $5 to $6 billion. This is about twice the cost of a comparable coal plant. Udell said that a 1,000-megawatt solar power plant would run about $2 billion.

Vanessa Pierce, the executive director of the Healthy Environment Alliance of Utah, said thousands of uranium mines that were active during the middle of the last century continue to be environmental hazards and clean-up efforts are ongoing. She also noted that workers in those mines were exposed to damaging levels of radiation and that current health standards for uranium mining have not been updated for decades.

Pierce also said that Utah’s Energy Solutions, a Utah company that handles radioactive waste in facilities in the west desert, processes 96 percent of the radioactive waste generated in the United States.

Pierce characterized any move toward nuclear power in Utah as a “relapse” and said that recent legislative lobbying efforts by utility companies are attempting to open the door for nuclear development.

Two state legislators, Rep. Michael E. Noel, R-Kanab, and Rep. Jack R. Draxler, R-North Logan, voiced their support for Nielson’s commitment to keep the nuclear power option open at yesterday’s committee hearing.

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Tyler Cobb