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Best Original Plot:
Rep. Aaron Tilton, R-Springville
Frank Capra couldn’t have written a script this hokey. It’s a sort of Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, in which a mild-mannered Viagra salesman gets himself elected to the Legislature and quickly lands seats on committees that will decide Utah’s future energy policy. Then, surprising everyone, the committees recommend going nuclear. In the last act, we learn Tilton is in the nuclear power-plant business.
The Utah County native ran for the state House of Representatives in 2004 after trying his hand at short-lived careers in restaurant operation, real estate, construction and online Viagra sales. He swept into office unchallenged after news surfaced that Tilton’s only opponent had been nabbed in a State Street prostitution sting in Salt Lake City. A member of the Conservative Caucus, Tilton is known for last year’s bill aimed at stamping out gay student clubs and a failed attempt to lower the legal age for riding ATVs—to 6.
Long before anyone knew Tilton had started Transition Power Development for the sole purpose of permitting nuclear power plants in Utah, Tilton was framing state energy policy. In 2006, he authored three bills requiring environmental groups to post pricey bonds before filing lawsuits against power plants. One Tilton bill specifically aimed to slow protests to the Radiation Control Board.
Tilton landed an appointment to Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr.’s Blue-Ribbon Advisory Council on Climate Change, a group charged with reducing Utah’s carbon output. Although a subcommittee had largely dismissed nuclear power as a low-carbon alternative, noting problems disposing of waste, the group’s final report gave nuclear the thumbs up. The change followed a vote participants say included one-on-one lobbying from Tilton.
In the Legislature, Tilton was named vice-chairman of the Public Utilities and Technology Committee overseeing power companies and pressed for financial incentives to attract a nuclear power plant to Utah.
In October, Tilton amended his official conflict-of-interest form to note the nuclear-power business he had formed eight months before. Unabashed, he testified in front of his own public utilities committee—as CEO of Transition Power.
What Critics Are Saying
“This was one of the biggest critics of the governor in trying to address climate change. He didn’t believe global warming was real. Suddenly, he’s a supporter of nuclear power to lessen our carbon footprint? It was obvious to a lot of us he was using this as an opportunity to pursue his own economic interests. … People were volunteering a lot of their time for the common good. His motive was purely financial.”
—Tim Wagner, Utah Chapter of the Sierra Club, who served with Tilton on the governor’s Blue Ribbon Advisory Council on Climate Change.
“I told him, ‘No.’ I said I’m happy to vote for nuclear if he was happy to put the nuclear plant in his back yard. … At that point I had no idea he was involved [in building a nuclear power plant]. He had said nothing to anyone about it.”
–Rep. Phil Riesen, D-Salt Lake City. Riesen served with Tilton on Huntsman’s climate change panel where, Riesen says, Tilton tried to secure his vote for nuclear power as an “alternative fuel.”
Rep. Mike Noel, R-Kanab
Every buddy movie needs a sidekick and the folksy Noel is just the ticket for leading man Aaron Tilton’s nuclear power play (see above). Both are members of the Conservative Caucus and serve together on the Public Utilities and Technology Committee, where Noel is chairman and Tilton vice-chairman. Noel has long been among the Legislature’s most ardent supporters of nuclear power, but until recently, few suspected he was in the business. Tilton’s plan to build nuclear power plants in the desert state of Utah will require lots and lots of water. As manager of the Kane County Water Conservancy District, Noel was in a position to sell Tilton’s nuclear power-plant company billions of acre-feet—a contract worth up to $1 million per year to the water district Noel will head when the plants come online.
A Kane County cattle rancher and former executive of anti-environmentalist group People for the USA, Noel is a longtime battler against federal regulators, Utah environmentalists and anyone who would close public land to grazing or off-road vehicles. He quit a job with the federal Bureau of Land Management after the Clinton administration created the Grand Staircase-Escalante Monument, a move that ended a coal mine Noel was preparing for the agency. Noel won election to the House in 2002. The following year he won a dubious award from legislative watchdog Common Cause as the “most gifted” lawmaker for receiving the highest value in Utah Jazz tickets and other lobbyist gifts.
In 2006, Noel surprised some by standing on the Utah House floor to call for an amendment to Utah’s energy policy—a study of nuclear power. A state energy task force that met earlier had decided against specific mention of going nuclear, but Noel insisted, even suggesting a power plant could be built on state trust land near Lake Powell. Nuclear plants would be a “great resource for the children of this state,” he said. Fast-forward one year and the water district Noel manages had inked a deal to sell billions of gallons of water to Transition Power, a company that wants to build nuclear power plants.
The study Noel called for on the House floor never happened. Still, last summer, the Public Utilities Committee headed by Noel was framing laws—at Noel’s request—to provide incentives for companies to build nuclear plants in Utah. The committee discussed having Utahns pay for nuclear power-plant construction through their utility bills, whether or not the plants ever came online. The anti-nuke crowd never had a chance, says utility ratepayer advocate Claire Geddes. With Noel and friend Tilton in charge, it was “a railroaded deal.”
What critics are saying:
“We couldn’t figure out for a long time what Noel’s interest was, what was driving this so fast. Some of it may be the uranium down there [in Noel’s southern-Utah district]. But we had no idea of the water situation. … We’re not sitting down and asking whether [nuclear power] is renewable, clean energy, or if it’s economic. Those questions are taking a back seat to an interest of a lawmaker.”
–Claire Geddes, utility ratepayer advocate.