I-Team: The Nuke Plant Next Door

LAS VEGAS -- The issues surrounding the use of nuclear power are well known to Nevadans, largely because of the prolonged debate about waste storage at Yucca Mountain. While Nevada has no nuke plants, the state once again finds itself in the cross hairs of someone else's nuclear plans -- a proposal to build a power plant right next door.

The 8 News NOW I-Team learned that plans for a Utah nuke plant are far beyond the talking stage, yet Nevada officials have shown little interest.

We knew this day would come, ever since President Barack Obama declared the nuclear option back on the table. Someone, somewhere would propose a new nuclear plant -- the first in decades.

Turns out, it is right next door and the site they have chosen sits along the main feeder to the Colorado River, the source of our water.

We're not going to rehash all of the contentious arguments about the risks and benefits of nuclear power, but there is no disagreement about what a Utah nuke plant would mean to the water supply, and the outlook is grim.

Green River, Utah isn't merely hurting, it is dying. The uranium mill and missile base closed years ago. After a new road bypassed the town, gas stations and stores sprouted weeds, motels fell into disrepair, and the tax base will not even support repaving the streets. Fewer than 1,000 people still live here.

"That is a typical rural joke. What is our biggest export? It's our children. We want to keep that from happening," said Mike McCandless with the Emery County Economic Development.

The idea for a nuclear power plant outside of town started slowly. Emery County has always been an energy producer, but its coal plants, which provide most of Utah's electricity, are now seen as vile polluters, not something to build on for the future.

"The nuclear facility, if it's approved, will sit about a mile an a half back here towards this mountain," said McCandless.

Civic leaders have designated a 3,000 acre industrial park just outside of the town as the spot for a massive 4,500 megawatt, state of the art nuclear plant -- a project that could cost $16 billion to build, create thousands of jobs, and stabilize the tax base.

Proponents say this is not a just site to build a nuclear power plant -- it is the best in the entire country. After all, it's far removed from major population centers, abuts a national highway, and has a rail line running right through it. Most importantly, it has water. The Green River is the main tributary to the Colorado. A nuke plant would consume a staggering 50,000 acre feet of water per year, which is the amount that would not travel down the Colorado and into an already shrinking Lake Mead.

Environmental groups have many concerns about nuclear power but think water is the key to whether the plant is built.

"Utah is the second driest state and Nevadans can identify with this. We're marrying ourselves to a future we have to choose -- are we going to have our water go to families and farms and communities or to create electricity? And as much as we need electricity, we can't drink it," said Christopher Thomas with Heal Utah.

Thomas points out it isn't as simple as taking the water for the nuke plant out of the Green River. The backers of the plan have acquired water rights elsewhere in Utah, water previously allocated for power plants that were never built which would be transferred to the nuclear project. Either way, opponents say, using that much water will lower the river by inches, endanger fish, and would be felt all the way down the Colorado.

Environmentalists favor less water intensive energy sources such as solar and think smaller green energy projects would be less likely to overwhelm Green River.

"Think about 4,000 jobs suddenly springing up in the town of Green River. How is that going to impact their way of life," said Thomas.

McCandless says support for the project in his county runs about 90 to 10 in favor.

"We don't want to destroy the river because we are the ones going to be here for the next 100 years, 200 years," he said. "It is in Utah's best interest to put that water to use. Otherwise, it is going and will go somewhere else."

"We have broad support from both sides of the aisle at the federal and state level," said former Utah legislator Aaron Tilton with Blue Castle Holdings.

Tilton is CEO of the company spearheading the project and says it is way beyond the talking stage. He thinks it is going to happen, and whether it's a nuclear plant or something else, Tilton says Utah already has the right to much more Colorado River water than it is using today.

"We have somewhere in the neighborhood of 400,000 acre feet," he said. "Eight times as much as what we have planned for this not being used that goes down the river right now."

Both sides agree that while some obstacles remain and that construction is years away, there is a good chance the plant is going to happen.

"I think we need to take this very seriously," said Thomas.

"If the water rights decision here in Utah is affirmative and they decide to go ahead, we feel like it would be difficult for this plant not to happen," said McCandless.

If Utah ends up using its full water allotment, either for the nuclear plant or something else, it's going to put Nevada in a terrible pinch. Environmental groups opposed to the Green River plant say they are astonished that Nevada water officials have shown little if any interest in what is unfolding in Utah right now. Support for the project in Utah is strong and growing.

There is yet another project in Utah that's directly related to Nevada's water supply: a mountain of radioactive gunk that is leaching into the river. The I-Team will have the latest on that and more on the Green River plant Tuesday on 8 News NOW at 5.


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