For more than 100 years and maybe back to the days of outlaw Butch Cassidy, water from the Green River has nourished fields of sweet watermelons near the tiny town of Green River, Utah.
But now a part of that water may be siphoned off for another use: cooling the twin reactors of a nuclear power plant that would tower above the town and its melons.
The nuclear facility is the concept of Blue Castle Holdings, a Utah-based and politically connected upstart nuclear development company that has been working on the project for more than three years.
If the $16 billion facility is built, it would generate 3,000 megawatts of electricity, enough to power 3 million households.
It also would be a further drain on the Green River, one of the most robust tributaries of the shrinking Colorado River, which serves 30 million people and Mexico along with irrigating 3.5 million acres of cropland. The river that once flowed freely 1,450 miles from its headwaters in the Rocky Mountains of Colorado and into the Gulf of California has been used so ruthlessly that it now slows to a dribble 50 miles short of the sea.
The plant would consume about 53,000 acre feet of water annually to cool its reactors and generate steam to power its turbines. That's enough to supply 200,000 people—roughly the population of Little Rock, Ark., or Tacoma, Wash.—for a year.
Blue Castle's proposal reignited a long-standing debate over how much more water can be drained from the Colorado River system before the river can no longer sustain the cities, farms and industries that have grown up around it. The Colorado's water has been divvied up, wrangled and fought over for more than a century, resulting in a tangled web of water rights that allots specific amounts of water to seven western states and hundreds of local water districts.
Still, Utah's state engineer, the ultimate arbitrator on how water is used in Utah, has already given approval for the project to proceed using the Green River water. With that authorization in hand, Blue Castle can move on to the next phase—the laborious process of seeking consent from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.
Utah's approval came with an ominous caveat, however, which was included in a news release issued by the state's Department of Natural Resources: "Approval of the application does not guarantee sufficient water will always be available from the river to operate the plant."
The news release added that Blue Castle would have to have contingency plans if, for some reason, less water is available. The company plans to solve that problem by building an onsite reservoir that would hold a 30-day supply of water.
Blue Castle's chief executive officer is Aaron Tilton, who sat on the legislature's utilities committee, where he was an outspoken proponent of nuclear energy. While he was still in office, Tilton formed a nuclear energy development company, a forerunner to Blue Castle. When he testified about the project before the utilities subcommittee, on which he served as vice chairman, he attracted a storm of unfavorable publicity.
Blue Castle's management team includes a past NRC chairman, former nuclear industry executives and a former general manager of Intermountain Power Agency, one of largest power producers in the Western United States.
In an interview with InsideClimate News, Tilton acknowledged that "water is everything" in the West. But he also pointed out that the nuclear facility will use less than one percent of Utah's water allotment while increasing the state's electricity production by 50 percent.
"This is Utah's water to use as it sees fit," he said. "We're not taking water away from anyone."
In fact, Tilton says that by leasing the water, his project will help Utah preserve its water rights for future generations.
"Then in 60 years, at the end of the generator's life, the water will be returned to the state for drinking or agricultural use when it may be needed for those purposes," he said.
Tilton also argued that nuclear power generators use far less water than other thermal generating facilities, especially the coal-fired plants that have dominated western power generation for decades.
"If we are talking about water conservation, the most efficient use of water is thermal nuclear generation," he said.
Opponents of the Blue Castle project are trying to stop it before it goes any further. More than 200 environmental groups, residents, business owners and the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation filed protests when the state engineer, Kent Jones, was considering Blue Castle's application. The opponents were on edge about the disposition of radioactive fuel rods and the consequences of a nuclear meltdown. But water use was their primary worry.
"The stark reality is we are going dry," said John Weisheit, conservation director for Living Rivers, a Moab, Utah-based environmental organization. "This project has a complete lack of water consciousness."
Weisheit also complains that the power the plant would produce wouldn’t be used in Utah, but in California and surrounding states. A study by the Western Electricity Coordinating Council predicts the region's power needs will grow 1 and a half percent per year over the next decade.
"The people living here ask why do we have to take all of the risks but not get any of the benefits," Weisheit said.