Today marked the end of a week-long bench trial asking Price judge George Harmond, Jr. to re-evaluate State Engineer Kent Jones' decision to grant 53,600 acre-feet of water to Blue Castle Holdings in preparation for the permitting of a nuclear-power plant. The previous four days have been spent listening to testimony from Blue Castle management, hydrologists and fisheries experts on both sides, economists, a nuclear-safety expert and Jones himself. Judge Harmond now has 60 days to give an opinion on whether Blue Castle will be able to keep these rights, which are being leased from the Kane County and San Juan County Water Conservancy Districts.
Blue Castle's defense of the rights maintained that the plant's withdrawal of water at 70 cubic feet per second would not negatively impact existing water rights or the endangered fish living in the river, even during periods of low flow. Blue Castle also had to show that the nuclear-power plant itself is more than mere speculation and will be a benefit to local and state economies.
According to attorney David Wright, Blue Castle and the Bureau of Reclamation have committed to working to gather to "keep flows at a level to help take care of the critters and the water users."
The case brought against Blue Castle by HEAL Utah and a plethora of environmentally minded co-plaintiffs asserted that the project would not only have a detrimental effect on the river's fish species, but is unlikely to ever see completion, due to the extraordinarily high cost of nuclear power, Blue Castle's apparent lack of investors and utilities' disinterest in nuclear power. They also argued that the Upper Basin of the Colorado River is already over-appropriated under the Colorado River Compact, and the state's ability to meet obligation to the Lower Basin states and Mexico may be impaired by additional withdrawals form the Green River, which is the chief tributary of the Colorado.
John Flitton, representing the plaintiffs, reiterated his concerns that the nuclear-power plant is a highly speculative venture incurring astronomical costs with little promise of return. He doubted Blue Castle's ability to raise the funds needed for a project of this size, and called into question state engineer Jones' decision-making, claiming that he "punted" the project to the federal government instead of thoroughly investigating the change application locally.
"We felt like there was potentially political pressure on the state engineer to look at [Blue Castle's application] a certain way," HEAL Utah Development Director Sophia Nicholas said after the trial, "Which is why we brought it here." Nicholas said she felt the day had gone well.
Sarah Fields of Uranium Watch, one of HEAL Utah's co-plaintiffs, agreed that the lawyers on their side had presented the case well. She took issue with statements made by the opposition, including the claim that nuclear is the carbon-neutral option. "Even a nuclear-power plant has to have outside electricity. It has to first have electricity to construct it, and then it needs outside electricity… to the run the power plant itself," she said coming out of the trial. She's also concerned that Blue Castle, which has no intention of being the plant's primary operator, doesn't have the same obligation to ratepayers that a utility might.
PacifiCorp's stated lack of interest in nuclear power was a key factor in the environmental groups' contention that there would no buyers for the power the plant would eventually produce. PacifiCorp is Rocky Mountain Power's mother corporation. Blue Castle's lawyers, however, say that the company's Integrated Resource Plan indicate the company will consider nuclear after the year 2022.
A representative for the state of Utah also made a closing statement in support of the state engineer's decision. Julie Valdez emphasized that Blue Castle had met the criteria for the water-rights-change applications, and that the government is committed to participating in the Recovery Implementation Program that would release water from Flaming Gorge Reservoir if needed to protect the endangered fish species of the Green River. In this case, it seems, the state is more than happy to rely on the federal government and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) to make the ultimate decision on whether the plant is environmentally viable.
Former chairman of the NRC and Blue Castle Chief Strategic Officer Nils Diaz said that court cases like this were "not uncommon" in bringing resolution to disputes of this nature. Diaz also felt that the day went well for his side. "I believe at the end of the process, the people of Utah will be satisfied that it was a transparent and fair process… I am hoping the fact that the state engineer took two years to make a decision with great care will weigh significantly" in the case.
"Nobody likes to wait around a year for a decision," Fields said, lauding the judge's commitment to a speedy resolution. However, she speculated, whatever decision the court comes to will most likely be appealed by the other side. While both sides may have differing views on the future of nuclear power in Utah, there is one issue on which they can agree: Concerned Utahns would do well to keep watching the battle for nuclear power in this state.