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Two Utah lawmakers have ties to nuclear plant

But Tilton and Noel see no conflict of interest

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Two influential Utah state representatives are involved in a project to build a nuclear power plant in Utah. But they say that involvement does not conflict with their work on an interim legislative committee considering legislation that would help utilities build nuclear power plants.

Rep. Aaron Tilton, R-Springville, is an owner of Transition Power Development, a private equity group that has signed an agreement to secure water rights for a nuclear power plant. If approved by water regulators, the plant's enormous water demands would be supplied by the Kane County Water Conservancy District, whose executive director is Rep. Mike Noel, R-Kanab.

Transition Power has agreed to pay the conservancy district $1 million a year for almost 30,000 acre-feet of water once the plant starts producing power, and lesser amounts before then. The private equity group has already paid $10,000.

Noel is chairman of the Legislature's Public Utilities and Technology Committee, and Tilton is vice chairman. Also, both men are members of the Public Utilities and Technology Interim Committee, which is co-chaired by Noel.

The interim committee has heard extensive testimony for and against nuclear power in its July and September meetings.

As first disclosed by the industry news service SNL Energy and verified by Tilton and Noel, Transition Power is considering building a nuclear power plant in Utah. Tilton told the Deseret Morning News that the plant's site is not confirmed.

But Transition Power has already paid the district $10,000 upon signing the water agreement. The private equity group will pay $100,000 annually for five years until construction starts. Then, the payment becomes $500,000 a year until power generation begins, when it jumps to $1 million annually.

The payment would be for water needed by the nuclear power plant. The facilities use a huge amount of water, when fuel rods heat water to steam, which in turn spins huge turbines to generate electrical power.

A bill to assist utilities in building nuclear power plants was discussed extensively by the Public Utilities Interim Committee on July 18 and Sept. 19.

In last month's meeting, when speaking about the bill, Tilton said, "First, I ought to disclose that I do have business dealings in energy and specifically in power-generation projects. I'm not sure if some people know that or don't know that." He did not use the word "nuclear" or refer to nuclear power in the disclosure.

Tilton said he could not support the bill as written because it lacks some consumer protections. "We have some real needs" concerning power, he said. "Alternatives should be in place."

At the time of both meetings, Tilton's written declaration on possible conflicts of interest noted involvement with pharmacy and electric power-generation matters. Four days ago, he amended the form to add "Transition Power Development LLC."

Concerning the bill that was discussed July 18 and Sept. 19, Tilton said Monday that he has no conflicts of interest.

"I really don't have a conflict of interest, because I'm not a regulated utility," he said, and the bill dealt with those utilities.

When the Deseret Morning News pointed out that the form was amended on Oct. 12, long after the interim committee meetings, Tilton said the meetings did not involve a conflict of interest, because "I'm not a utility."

On his Declaration of Conflict of Interest form, Noel noted that he was associated with several groups: Michael E. Noel Environmental Consulting, Flood Canyon Ranch and Kane County Water Conservancy District.

But Monday he said it was not a conflict to co-chair the committee that is considering legislation involving a nuclear power plant.

"Not at all," he said, when asked if that was a conflict.

"The district is a public entity, like a city, a community, leasing water to them," meaning the nuclear power plant, he said. "We're a public utility. I work for the water district as a paid employee."

House Speaker Greg Curtis, R-Sandy, appoints committee chairmen and members. He said Monday that he couldn't comment on any specific conflict-of-interest matters, as he had to speak to Tilton and Noel.

He said he has no plans to reassign committee chairmen or committee members, but he would look into the matter.

House Minority Leader Ralph Becker, D-Salt Lake, who also is on the Public Utilities Interim Committee and is running for Salt Lake City mayor, said he can't presume what conflicts were or were not properly disclosed. But he said Tilton had the opportunity at the September meeting to explain any potential nuclear power conflicts but chose not to discuss his connection.

Becker said he takes issue with the Utah Legislature's relatively low bar on legislative conflicts of interest. Rather than excusing oneself from a vote, "You have to declare a conflict — that's all."

By rule, Utah legislators are required to vote on all bills or motions, even if they have a conflict.

A poll this past May by Dan Jones & Associates found that 84 percent of Utahns want lawmakers to be able to abstain from voting on a bill on which they have a personal or professional conflict. The poll also found that 77 percent of Utahns want greater disclosure of conflicts of interest.

E-mail: bau@desnews.com, bbjr@desnews.com