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Nuclear speculation

Published February 20, 2013 1:01 am

SB199 would shift risk to ratepayers
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2013, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

When the ink isn't even dry before the sponsoring lawmaker starts distancing himself from a bill he just introduced, the possibility of that bill becoming law seems remote indeed.

Which is good, because Sen. Curt Bramble's SB199 is a horrible idea.

The bill, dropped in the hopper at the behest of developers who just won't give up the foolish idea of building a nuclear power plant on Utah's Green River, would take the extraordinary step of allowing a power utility to start charging its customers for certain generating stations long before the station is actually generating. And it would provide a loophole in the current law that requires utilities operating in the state to provide their customers with the cheapest power available.

The bill is basically an admission that nuclear power plants are far too expensive, and far too risky an investment, to be bankrolled through the private capital market. With no investors willing to put up the billions necessary for the long permitting and design process — which could lead to a dry hole — the backers of the proposed Blue Castle nuclear plant want Utah electric customers to fund their speculation.

Were the bill to pass, and were the Utah Public Service Commission to take every step the bill allows, Utah ratepayers could see large hikes in their monthly bills to pay for a nuclear power plant that may never get off the drawing board.

Bramble was quick to say that the bill's language was "not ready for prime time" and that the Blue Castle people were on notice that it would not move forward without extensive public participation. One wonders if Bramble's real purpose was to get the Blue Castle people off his back by showing them just how amazingly unpopular their scheme would be.

Bramble's honesty about his bill is helpful, as the bill itself conceals its purpose by avoiding even a single use of the word "nuclear." It refers to sources of "zero carbon emissions generation," which a nuclear plant, emitting no greenhouse gases, would technically be.

But the lack of carbon emissions does not make a nuclear power plant environmentally friendly. The amount of water needed to cool the process threatens to make any plant built in Utah's desert impractical at best. And we still haven't figured out what to do with the spent fuel and other radioactive leavings.

If Utahns are so desperate for nuclear power that they would be willing to start paying billions for it before a plant has even won its permit, this is the chance for them to say so. Otherwise, this bill richly deserves the oblivion for which it is destined.