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Legislators or nuclear power businessmen? Critics say they can't be both

 Salt Lake Tribune

At a legislative committee meeting this morning, Rep. Aaron Tilton will leave his seat as a legislator and become a witness, briefing lawmakers on his efforts as CEO of a company seeking a license to build a nuclear power plant in Utah.
Alongside his business partner, the nation's former top nuclear regulator, Nils Diaz, the Springville Republican will lay out how his company has already inked a deal to supply the power plant with water from the Kane County Water District, led by fellow Rep. Mike Noel.
"If that's not a conflict of interest, I don't know what one is," said Tim Wagner, who heads the Sierra Club's energy campaign.
Tilton defends his actions, insisting there is no conflict of interest because he has not voted for any legislation that would have helped his company, Transition Power Development, LLC.
Noel and Tilton have been two leading proponents for developing nuclear power, both in the Legislature and, in Tilton's case, as a member of Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr.'s Blue Ribbon Advisory Committee on Climate Change.
And both, as legislators, have a role directly affecting the state's energy policy: Tilton as vice-chairman of the House Public Utilities and Technology Committee and Noel as chairman of the committee and a member of the House committees with oversight of the Department of Environmental Quality and the Utah Division of Radiation Control.
But Tilton said his committee and the state agencies Noel's committee oversees have ''nothing to do with the company's fate," since the Nuclear Regulatory Commission has sole discretion over licensing.
A proposal before the House utilities committee would have offered incentives to electric utilities seeking to build a nuclear plant, but Tilton said his company would not have qualified for the incentives and he opposed the effort because it would have hurt consumers.
Noel did not return messages left on his cell phone seeking comment.
"Noel and Tilton have no business shaping our state's nuclear power policies when they stand to personally profit from the outcome," said Vanessa Pierce, executive director of the Healthy Environment Alliance of Utah, which opposes nuclear power. "Both legislators have abused the public trust by failing to disclose their financial stake in a proposal to promote nuclear power in Utah - and they continue to betray that trust by denying this clear conflict of interest."
And Roger Ball, the head of the Utah Ratepayers Association, said decisions that impact ratepayers, like building a power plant, are a great concern. "I believe that legislators need to be above suspicion, and they're na ve if they don't think so,'' he said.
Joining Tilton at the hearing will be Diaz, a principal in Transition Power Development and chairman of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission until he stepped down last year. Diaz said he will be on hand to answer legislators' questions.
Diaz said the company is focused on developing a suitable site for construction of nuclear power plants, "not on construction or operation."
"We are developing a site and that will be done with the utmost care to environmental issues, to the safety and security of the people of the community," he said. It is too soon to say whether the company would seek to sell the license to a utility to operate a power plant.
Tilton has been managing director and chief executive officer of TPD since February. He said the company's licensing efforts are ''very preliminary.''
"We haven't even identified a site or anything," Tilton said. "The first thing we have to do is figure out, 'Can you get water in this state?' That was the reason for the contract with Mike [Noel]'s district."
When asked by The Tribune last month whether he had ties to the nuclear industry, Tilton said he had worked on a coal power plant proposed in Utah and on a natural-gas project in Wyoming, but not on nuclear power.
Tilton did not disclose his role in the company until last Friday, when he amended his House conflict-of-interest disclosure.
"We weren't, as a company, ready to release that information" until a contract was signed three weeks ago with the Kane water district to secure 30,000 acre-feet of water per year, he said.
The district had set aside the water for a coal power plant that fell through, Tilton said.
His company has paid the district $10,000 and will pay $100,000 for the next five years, with payments increasing to $500,000 after five years, about the time he expects the NRC to approve the license. The payments would increase to $1 million at about the time the plant would be brought on line.
"We have all kinds of work to do before then," said Tilton. "We still have to determine whether or not Utah is a place you can put a plant and that's really the discussion we're [having] now."