Get Big Pivots


by Allen Best

Two communities, one in Colorado and another in Wyoming—and likely more in each state—are interested in seeing whether nuclear power plants can prop up their economies once the coal plants close in coming years.

In Colorado, the two aging units of the Comanche coal-burning station near Pueblo are scheduled to close in 2022 and 2024. The third and newest unit, Comanche 3, will continue operations until 2040, if Xcel Energy, the operator and majority owner, has its way. It may not. The plant has been an expensive one to operate since its opening 2010, as state regulators have noted.

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The Pueblo Chieftain reports strong interest in nuclear from among elected officials in Pueblo and Pueblo County once Comanche 3 goes away. The current plant generates more than $15 million annually in tax revenue, and they’d like to see something provide similar revenue and employment.

“They’ve taken new technologies, they’ve addressed the issues with water use, they’ve addressed a lot of the safety issues,” said Pueblo County Commissioner Chris Wiseman.

As quoted by the Chieftain, Pueblo Mayor Nick Gradisar was supportive but also cautious. He noted work with the state’s Just Transition Committee to replace the lost generating tax. “This is one way to do it, with a different kind of energy generating,” he said. “I don’t think that’s the only solution.”

Gradisar also suggested that if a nuclear power plant gets built, it should serve the local community. Power from the Comanche units gets exported to metro Denver and elsewhere, but not to Pueblo County.

Specifically discussed during the meeting were plans by Portland-based NuScale, which has a partnership in Idaho with the Utah Associated Municipal Power Systems to open the company’s first modular nuclear reactor. The project has been pared to six module reactors that could provide a combined 462 megawatts of electricity.

downtown Gillette

Gillette presumably is one of the existing Wyoming towns with coal-fired power plants interested in becoming home to a nuclear power plant. Photo/Allen Best

In Wyoming, four communities with coal plants are on the list of potential sites for a proposed modular nuclear reactor.  Presumably Gillette, Kemmerer, and Rock Springs all have interest in being the site of the 300-megawatt modular reactor proposed by Rocky Mountain Power and TerraPower, a company founded by Bill Gates and others partly with the motivation of reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

The fourth place in the running for the plant is Glenrock, between Douglas and Casper, a town of 2,600 and site of the Dave Johnston coal plant. The plant is scheduled to retire in 2027, taking 191 jobs with it.

The Natrium reactor is slotted to come on line in 2028, wherever it goes. The Casper Star-Tribune’s Nicole Pollack reports a recent meeting in Glenrock showed strong support.

“We have a history of energy developments in our community, going way, way back,” said Margaret Nunn, a councilwoman. “One, we opened coal mines. Two, we built a power plant. Three, we mined out the coal and reclaimed the land. Four, we built a new wind farm where the coal mine once was. Five, our power plant has outlived its time. So what is number six in our energy history?”

Another elected official, Converse County Commissioner Robert Short, asked the power plant developers what the local community needs to land the plant.

The answer is be enthusiastic. But also be lucky.

The Star-Tribune’s Nicole Pollack says the current coal plant, Dave Johnston, has a 922-megawatt capacity, compared to the 345 megawatts for the nuclear plant. But its energy storage system will deliver a maximum of 500 megawatts of power for five hours at a time. The developers hope to eventually build reactors at all four Wyoming locations that will be losing their coal plants.

Will any one of them get built? At least in Colorado, among those well-versed in nuclear power, there’s some skepticism that the power can be delivered at competitive prices.

But then again, that was also said of solar power at one time, and wind power, too.

“Let’s just sit and watch how NuScale and TerraPower make out,” said one public official in Colorado, speaking on condition of confidentiality.

“I often say that nuclear has a bigger cost problem than a safety problem.  If either of these firms can bring a plant in at a reasonable cost, these plants may very well fly off the shelf in the 2030’s and 2040’s.”

Allen Best
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