Big Pivots: What Nuclear Proponents Need to Talk About, Too

As the Craig coal-fired power plant nears closure, Sen. Bob Rankin and others are trying to see if advanced small modular nuclear reactors would be a good fit for northwest Colorado.
Amber Delay/Craig Press

A nuclear reactor could be a nice addition to the economy of Craig, the community in northwest Colorado. But can Colorado afford nuclear power?

Three coal-fired units in Craig will be closed between 2025 and 2030. These plants and associated mining provide the Moffat County School District with approximately 20% of its property tax base and many jobs that pay exceptionally well for the Rural Colorado.

A nuclear plant rising like a phoenix from the ruins of coal could use existing high voltage transmission and provide at least some of the lost jobs.

Additionally, a next-generation nuclear power plant could supplement Colorado’s abundant wind and solar generation. Utilities say they have figured out how to achieve 85% or even 90% emissions-free electricity from renewables without risking reliability and raising rates wildly. No one has the answer for that last 10-15% yet. Nuclear could help.

The Associated Governments of Northwest Colorado, a Rifle-based five-county planning agency, became the hub of this conversation. As the Grand Junction Sentinel first reported, members met in June with State Senator Bob Rankin, a Republican from Garfield County, to talk about the potential.

In the last legislative session, Rankin tried to get his fellow legislators to appropriate $500,000 (modified to $250,000) to study nuclear potential. “If we really believe climate change is an existential threat, then how can we not look at all the options,” Rankin said as he introduced his bill.

Some who testified at the committee meeting cited environmental concerns. A few self-identified environmentalists testified in favor because, they said, nuclear provides emission-free energy. More than 19% of all emissions-free electricity in the United States comes from nuclear. Noticeably absent was the administration’s backing of Governor Jared Polis. The bill failed 3-2 on a party-line vote.

Nuclear, however, has a nagging problem. It’s expensive. Advocates rarely mention it. Costs for Georgia’s Vogtle plant, the only US nuclear power plant under construction, have risen from $14 billion to more than $30 billion. In South Carolina, investors shut down a nuclear power plant after spending $9 billion. It has become one of the most expensive sources of energy, barely less than rooftop solar, according to Lazard, the financial analyst.

Modular nuclear reactors have been promoted as a means of reducing costs. Specific projects have been designed in both Idaho and Wyoming. Bill Gates is an investor in the latter. Maybe they will overcome this cost issue. We won’t really know for 10, maybe 15 years.

State Senator Chris Hansen remains skeptical. He has expertise unmatched among legislators. He set out to become a nuclear engineer after first laying eyes on a reactor as a high school student in farming country Kansas. He graduated but had already turned to economics. He went on to earn degrees from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and, from Oxford, a Ph.D. in resource economics.

Nuclear, he told a Sterling County commissioner in 2019, when I first heard him answer this question, is simply not cost competitive. Last week when we spoke, he offered more details.

“I think these technologies will have to prove themselves,” he said of modular nuclear reactors. “Right now, best case scenario, it looks like they will provide electricity at $60 to $70 per megawatt hour. Wind and solar cost less than $20. »

The sun doesn’t always shine, the wind doesn’t always blow, and we have very little long-term storage.

“Absolutely, there is added value to a power plant that you can run at the flick of a switch, but keep in mind that these (coal) units have high rates of unreliability due to the needs of maintenance and breakdowns, and some nuclear plants have had the exact same problems,” he said.

Hansen suggests that reliability can be provided more economically by less expensive alternatives. For example, it has pushed transmission and passed legislation to create organized markets that will allow electricity to be moved across wider geographic areas in response to consumer demands. Colorado is currently an island with limited bridges to other areas.

Xcel Energy, Colorado’s largest utility, also has a wait-and-see attitude. In June, I asked Alice Jackson, who now leads planning for Xcel Energy in its eight-state service territory, what her company needed to see. “Profitable investment in building the new releases,” she said. Xcel, she added, will be careful.

Will the new generation of nuclear become profitable? Maybe. We don’t have all the answers to 100% emission-free electricity even as we expand its use in buildings and transportation. Nuclear could be an answer. But this comes at a high cost. Any serious conversation must recognize this.

allen best
Courtesy picture

Comments are closed.