SALT LAKE CITY — The debate over a proposed nuclear power plant in Green River dominated a Wednesday legislative committee hearing, where lawmakers heard dueling stories about its benefits of clean energy and its potential risks to public safety.
Blue Castle Holdings wants to site a two-unit nuclear power plant outside the Emery County community, proposing to take a little more than 50,000 acre-feet of water from the Green River for its operations.
The water rights application by the company, of which former lawmaker Aaron Tilton is chief executive officer, is pending review from the state water engineer and has been hotly protested by antinuclear foes and local farmers and others who say the withdrawal is not sustainable.
The presentation before the Public Utilities and Technology legislative interim committee was held in the wake of the March nuclear meltdown in Japan following an earthquake and tsunami that led to a blackout and radiological leaks.
Lawmakers asked pointed questions about a potential, similar scenario playing out in Utah, which one expert said would not happen because of more stringent safety standards in the United States.
"It is important to separate the United States from Japan," said Nils Diaz, a former member of the federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission and an employee of Blue Castle Holdings who is the point man for the facility's regulatory permitting.
Japan and other countries with nuclear power plants have not adopted a so-called "gold standard" design that contemplates an array of potential disasters that includes terrorist attacks, floods, earthquakes or plane crashes, he said.
"The fact is we have done study after study and believe it would be extremely rare to have an accident in a U.S. reactor that would have catastrophic radiological consequences," Diaz said.
Matt Pacenza, policy director for HEAL Utah, said any chance of risk should be a chance that is soundly rejected. He pointed out the project poses unacceptable risks of contamination to the Colorado River, would probably supply power to out-of-state users and would leave Utah holding the bag on how to dispose of the radioactive waste.
"It's a high-stakes game," he said. "People make mistakes … equipment doesn't work."
Sen. Stuart Adams, R-Layton, wondered aloud whether the concern over safety threats posed by a nuclear power plant are any worse than other tragedies that have played out over the years.
"We've had horrific coal mine disasters in Utah, the oil disaster in the gulf. We can't drill in Alaska. We could criticize any industry we wanted to."
Adams said on average 244 people die on Utah roads every year.