Utah holds a heartrending history with the atom. From the disastrous effects of Nevada’s nuclear testing on unsuspecting citizens, we have a legacy of downwinders and cancer. Uranium mines and mills have left a mark on communities all over southern Utah, from the Navajo Nation, where miners’ exposure to radiation led to alarming rates of cancer, to Moab’s infamous 16-million-ton tailings pile on the Colorado River. Monticello, south of Moab, also has higher-than-normal cancer rates, linked to a now-defunct Department of Energy uranium-processing mill.
“Uranium” and “nuclear” are not words we take lightly here.
Yet, against this dark backdrop of loss and unease, plans for a nuclear power plant near Green River are incrementally moving forward. A group called Blue Castle Holdings is seeking funding for the construction of two reactors at the base of the Book Cliffs. With a combined output of 3,000 megawatts, they would increase electricity output in the state by 50 percent. This power would diversify Utah’s coal-heavy energy portfolio. And the plant would bring high-paying jobs to a rural region where economic stability has never been known.
However, Utah is not short on power. This electricity would be produced for use elsewhere. And considering that nuclear reactors are thirsty creatures, building two in the deserts of the nation’s second-driest state seems like folly. The president of this enterprise is a former state representative and one-time owner of a vegan restaurant, seller of inspirational audiotapes and online purveyor of prescription drugs. He is not an energy guru, but an entrepreneur looking for the next way to make a buck … or a million. This is not a resume that inspires confidence in the company’s nuclear competency.
During a recent Grand County Council meeting in Moab, Blue Castle presented its vague plans and touted nuclear power’s clean track record — no direct fatalities in the history of the United States. The company has been warmly welcomed in Green River, a small town hungry for jobs, but the reception in Moab was different. The council chambers were standing room only, and scores of residents spoke in opposition to Blue Castle’s plans. Even council members expressed concerns. Moab, once the “Uranium Capital of the World,” knows firsthand that nuclear power is about more than generating electricity. We have 16 million tons of uranium waste on the edge of town — currently in transit to a safer resting place — to remind us of the costs of this “clean” energy. The reactors are only one small part of a beast whose tentacles reach throughout countless landscapes and communities across the country.
Nuclear power is mining. It is milling, tailings piles and nuclear waste storage. It is roads across landscapes, holes in cliffs, trucks burning fossil fuels to get uranium to mills and then to plants. It is a millennia-long responsibility to dangerous byproducts. It is miners and mill workers dying of cancer, the indirect and silent fatalities that the nuclear industry doesn’t tally. These aspects of power production pose problems for which we haven’t yet learned solutions — problems whose effects reach beyond the bounds of Emery County and thousands of years into the future.
I do not want to echo the mistakes of a heavy history. I do not want to see 60 million gallons of water a day permanently diverted from the Green River to cool an apparatus whose thirst will not safely be slaked in this lifetime. I do not want to see billions of dollars fund a questionable power source when it could instead fuel innovation. I do not want to challenge fate, to tempt the unexpected, to repeat events at Fukushima, Three-Mile Island, Chernobyl and dozens of other far-flung sites whose accidents went largely unreported.
I want prosperity for Green River and power for our homes, but not at the expense of the health and safety of generations to come. I want to move forward, but we must remember what lies behind us — our suffering, our losses, the collective grief of fractured families, cultures and landscapes — because forgetting is a failure of conscience.