Las Vegas Sun

November 28, 2015

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In Nevada, nuclear raises touchy issues

Plants’ voracious thirst, state’s Yucca stand complicate idea for Ely


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Nevada’s long-standing common sense argument against Yucca Mountain has been that the state doesn’t even have a nuclear plant, so it would be patently wrong to force it to be the nuke dump site for the rest of the nation.

That line might not be valid in the future, however. Ely is considering going nuclear.

The northeastern Nevada town was once slated to become home to two huge coal power plants. But as costly regulations of carbon emissions loomed large in recent years, those plants were put on the back burner. The mining town is desperate for the economic diversification and high-paying jobs a power plant would bring. Its advocates argue that nuclear energy is “green energy” to the extent that it does not emit greenhouse gases.

Plans to build at least one major transmission line from Ely to Las Vegas mean a nuclear plant up there could supply power to Southern Nevada and elsewhere, notes Gary Duarte, a Sparks resident who is the founder and director of the US Nuclear Energy Foundation, a nonprofit organization that promotes nuclear energy in rural areas.

A nuclear plant anywhere in Nevada, however, would not only fly in the face of the state’s lobbying against nuclear waste, it would also be a huge consumer of a resource over which epic fights are under way — water.

Yucca’s staunchest and most powerful opponent, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, wouldn’t address the Ely situation directly, but through a spokesman said he wants to hold off on nuclear energy until scientists figure out what to do with the lethal waste the plants generate.

Reid also has concerns about the amount of water a nuclear plant would use, his spokesman, Jon Summers said.

“All Nevadans should be aware that there is no other power source that requires more water than nuclear,” he said. “In fact, it’s the only power source that requires more water than coal.”

Water is hugely politicized in Nevada — especially in Northern Nevada. Rural Nevadans are steamed about Southern Nevada’s decades-long quest for all the unused water (and even some of the used water) in their aquifers.

Ely is afraid that if it doesn’t use all the water it has, the Southern Nevada Water Authority will swoop in and take it.

The water in the Steptoe Valley basin, which covers the area of White Pine County that includes Ely and the outlying area where the nuclear plant might be located, is spoken for, according to state records. Enough water flows into the basin most years to enable farmers, miners and municipalities to pull about 70,000 acre-feet of water from beneath the ground each year. Locals have permission from the state to pump more than 96,400 acre-feet of water a year. Most water rights holders don’t use all their water every year, and the biggest users are farms, where much of the water used trickles back down into the aquifer.

That wouldn’t happen with water used at a nuclear plant. A good portion of it is lost as steam.

Modern nuclear power plants use about 25 million gallons of water a day. Annually, that comes out to about 60,000 acre-feet of water. Mike McGough, senior vice president of UniStar Nuclear Energy, which made an informational presentation on nuclear development last month in Ely, notes that most plants have recapture technology that can drop that number to 25,000 acre-feet. But that’s still 36 percent of the basin’s water — and water that is not even available, according to state records.

Ely Mayor Jon Hickman, who is advocating for the nuclear plant, said enough water for it would be available if both coal plants were officially scuttled and the companies abandoned their quest for water rights.

He said Ely residents fear that if they don’t find another use for that water, the Southern Nevada Water Authority will get it, further limiting the town’s options for economic diversification.

The authority says that won’t happen, but Northern Nevadans don’t believe it.

Hickman and others in Ely do believe in nuclear, though.

“Ely really needs something that is going to be more permanent than what we have,” Hickman says. “Like any mining community we always live in fear of the mine closing. It would destroy our economy.”

A nuclear plant would boost the Ely economy by first providing 4,000 skilled construction jobs for the six years it would take to build the plant, McGough says. During that time, the town’s population — now just over 4,000 — would boom, supporting local businesses. And locals could use that time get the education they would need to land one of the approximately 360 permanent jobs that would each would pay from $85,000 to $90,000 a year.

The economic footprint of a nuclear plant would be huge — about $20 million in state and local taxes, McGough said.

“There are a lot of positive impacts,” he said. “The jobs at the site all spawn secondary and tertiary economic impacts.”

It would take a lot more than an ideal site to get a company like his to build a $9 billion power plant, however.

“Anybody who is going to develop a nuclear energy plant would be irresponsible and asking for an uphill battle if they were trying to go build something in a place where they’re not wanted,” he says. “Our feeling is that there are lots of places where these facilities are desired and if we’re going to develop this huge endeavor, we’re only going to do it if we’ve got local, state, political support.”

But could a nuclear power plant developer get that support in a state known for its opposition to nuclear waste?

Nevada Nuclear Waste Task Force Executive Director Judy Treichel said her organization is opposed to both storage of the nuclear waste and of the plants that make it. She and the anti-nuclear waste organizations that her group represents would be sure to mount strong opposition.

Even in Ely, the town’s leaders and residents have a lot of questions, Hickman said. They’ve set up a community committee to explore the pros and cons of having a nuclear plant nearby and to gauge public opinion.

That was a major hurdle for the coal plants, which were fairly popular with most Ely residents, but strongly opposed by others throughout the West. Hickman said he expects opposition to a nuclear plant would be just as strong.

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