Big problems require big solutions, and Utah has some big problems. Some are here now, like smog. Others are small now but are growing quickly along with the population, like demand for dwindling fresh-water resources. The good news is that, like our pioneer ancestors, we can choose solutions that both meet our current needs and set up our children and grandchildren for success in the long run.
One of the solutions Utahns should choose is to build a nuclear power plant to provide smog-free, reliable (not dependent on the wind or sun) electricity. In addition, while average annual snowpacks decrease at the same time as demand for water from growing industry and population increases, a nuclear power plant could be used to desalinate water from the Great Salt Lake, unlocking a huge reserve of water that has been, up to now, largely unusable for that purpose.
Of course, there are predictable objections to the idea of a nuclear power plant. What about the danger of radiation? The truth is that those living near coal-fired power plants are exposed to more radiation annually than those living near a nuclear power plant.
How can we store all the toxic nuclear waste? The amount of waste generated per person each year could easily fit inside a two-liter soda bottle, and much of that is lower-level waste. In any case, all the waste is accounted for and tightly regulated, tracked and stored. Compare that with the amount and “storage” of waste from our current coal and natural gas-generated electricity. We “store” that voluminous waste temporarily in the air we breathe during an inversion until the weather shifts and blows it out to somewhere (and someone) else.
Would one nuclear power plant really make a difference in Utah? One average-size nuclear power plant could generate about one-third of Utah’s current electricity use. That one-third would come without any asthma-aggravating, embarrassing-for-tourism smog. And if a nuclear power plant were used to desalinate water from the Great Salt Lake, rough estimates are that it could provide about 20 million gallons per day. If the average Salt Lake City resident currently uses about 100 gallons per day, and there are about 200,000 residents, that’s enough fresh water for the whole city. Before anyone worries that by doing this we might drain the Great Salt Lake, remember that it contains around 5 trillion gallons of water, depending on the year, so even if we desalinated 20 million gallons per day for a whole year, we’d use just over one-tenth of 1 percent of the lake’s water.
What about the cost? Aren’t nuclear power plants expensive? Despite significant upfront costs, nuclear power plants are comparable with other large electric generation facilities. The more important question we should be asking is what the cost of inaction will be. The state’s population and, thus, its demand for electricity are going up, so how much will it hurt our economy if we forgo adding reliable production and allow prices to rise with demand? What about the environmental costs? Building a nuclear power plant now can ensure that electricity prices stay low and that environmental impacts are minimized. It also doesn’t hurt that one nuclear power plant creates, on average, around 500 stable, long-term jobs.
Our pioneer ancestors thought ahead when they did things like building wide streets or creating networks of canals and ditches. Those decisions benefited both them and their descendants. Let's take the same approach and invest in a big solution to some real problems. Our grandchildren just may thank us.