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Nuclear power: Folly, foe or friend?

In this Friday, April 27, 2012, file photo, people utilize the beach outside the San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station in San Onofre, Calif.
In this Friday, April 27, 2012, file photo, people utilize the beach outside the San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station in San Onofre, Calif.
Lenny Ignelzi, File, Associated Press

SALT LAKE CITY — The pursuit of a nuclear power plant in Utah puts residents on an imperiled path that leads only to dangerous, unacceptable health risks, an unsustainable use of water, exposure to terrorism and electrical generation far pricier than wind or solar.

Those harsh criticisms were spoken by Brian Moench, president of the Utah Physicians for a Healthy Environment, who excoriated the nuclear power industry, its federal regulators and governments both locally and abroad for spinning a string of cover-ups that fail to get at the disastrous effects of nuclear power.

"It is absolute lunacy" to support such a plant in Utah, Moench said Tuesday during a luncheon speech before the University of Utah Emeriti Association.

Titled "Nuclear Power Plants Behaving Badly," Moench's presentation detailed an array of reasons Utah residents should oppose the planned nuclear power plant outside of Green River in Emery County.

He cited power plant failures or nuclear meltdowns in the legacy of Chernobyl and Fukushima that could be visited on Utah.

He pointed to radiation exposure from accidents that he says studies demonstrate will have fatal or otherwise devastating health impacts for years to come — cancer, thyroid abnormalities or genetic mutations borne by humans, wildlife and plants.

He emphasized the unrelenting thirst of nuclear power plants in the facilities' cooling systems, gulping down water that isn't fathomable in the arid West and with the threat of climate change.

And he stressed: "Utah taxpayers could be forced to build this threat into their lives," pointing to legislation he suspects will be introduced in the Legislature that sets up some sort of taxpayer funding mechanism for Aaron Tilton's Blue Castle project.

Tilton, a former Republican lawmaker from Utah County, secured rights to 53,600 acre-feet of water per year from the Green River for use in a proposed two-unit nuclear power plant that would have the capacity to generate 3,000 megawatts of electrical power.

His project is in the very embryonic stages of early site-application process with the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission and may be years off, but that has not stopped anti-nuclear critics from attacking the project from all sides.

John Keeley, spokesman with the Nuclear Energy Institute, said there are those naysayers and critics of all things nuclear power who simply can't be persuaded, and Moench appears to be one of them.

"There's good reason upwards of 70 nuclear power plants are under construction today in the world," Keeley said, adding that there are five new ones in various stages in the United States.

"Globally, we are closer to a political consensus than ever before that we need to move to cleaner generation. … Policymakers on both sides of the aisle, including President Obama and President Bush, are behind it. It is enjoying unprecedented bipartisan support. There is a reason for that."

While Moench may say that a nuclear power plant puts out one-fourth of the greenhouse gas emissions that a natural gas plant does, to Keeley that means they are at least four times better than natural gas when it come to emissions.

"Sure, they are expensive, but nuclear power plants are a great long-term value asset," he said. "We run reliably, and we don't emit and we make lots of power."

Critics like to point to a nuclear plant's use of water, but Keeley said what they don't say is that 98 percent of that water is returned to the original water body, cleaner than when it left.

He added that governments around the world would not agree with Moench over the environmental or health dangers either.

"We do not belch sulfur or other toxins into the air," Keeley said. "And we have an unrivaled safety record. … It is safer to work at a nuclear power plant than as a baby-sitter or on Wall Street."

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