SALT LAKE CITY -- A judge on Wednesday removed one of many obstacles for a company that wants to build the first nuclear power plant in Utah.
Seventh District Judge George Harmon ruled the project won't jeopardize the availability of water supplies as he approved a water-rights transfer for the reactor's cooling towers.
Harmon presided over a trial earlier this year pitting the environmental group HEAL Utah against Blue Castle Holdings, the company that wants to build the nuclear plant.
Critics argued that Blue Castle doesn't have the assets to pull off a multi-billion project and that it would take too much water out of the Green River at a time when water supplies are shrinking across the West owing to long-term drought.
"It's baffling that this project continues to stumble forward," said Matt Pacenza, HEAL Utah's policy director. "We learned during the trial that Blue Castle has struggled to attract any investment at all. Our largest utility, Rocky Mountain Power, has explicitly said they aren't interested in nuclear power. This judge had a chance to rule that such a speculative project had no right to our precious water."
Utah has plenty of water, the judge ruled. The state is using only 1 million of its 1.4-million acre-feet allotment from the Colorado Basin, the nuclear plant wouldn't take anybody else's water, and Blue Castle doesn't have to prove the project is economically feasible to justify a water transfer, the judge said.
"It is far from certain that Blue Castle will find partners to construct the nuclear plant, but Blue Castle's business plan shows the project, if built, will eventually be profitable," Harmon wrote in his 26-page decision.
His ruling upholds a 2010 decision by State Engineer Kent Jones to approve the use of 53,600 acre-feet of water a year for the twin reactor. The water was previously approved for coal-fired power plants in Kane and San Juan counties that were never built. Those rights reverted back to water conservancy districts for both counties, which agreed to sell them for the 2,500-megawatt nuclear plant.
The plant would draw water continuously from the Green River, primarily for cooling that's essential for any nuclear plant, the judge said.
The power station still requires a number of federal permits that could take years for the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to approve. Blue Castle has already spent $17.5 million on initial studies, according to Harmon's decision.