Get Big Pivots


But believing this technology will be ‘the answer’ will not be enough. Some very difficult questions that must be answered before proclaiming it the next answer at Craig and Pueblo.


by Allen Best

Nuclear is clearly on the table for study in Colorado, and it should be. But those advocating for it have tended to avoid the really hard questions. Like cost. Security. And can these technological advances allow nuclear to reach the finish line before they’re eclipsed by other systems and technologies?

On May 1, Oliver Stone’s new movie, “Nuclear Now” was shown in Boulder to an audience of 50 to 75 people, mostly supporters. In this movie, Stone makes the case that the risks posed by climate change are so great that we must embrace nuclear energy.

A few hours before, at a hearing in Denver, state legislators heard an even more urgent equation. “Anybody who opposes nuclear I believe is a climate denier,” an individual testified before the Senate Transportation and Energy Committee.

And in Pueblo that evening, city council members heard about a committee formed by Xcel Energy to study options to replace tax base, jobs, and electrical generation once the last coal plant there closes. The group has met monthly since February, and nuclear is among the study topics.

In the background is the federal government, offering gambling money on all sorts of decarbonization solutions, including nuclear.

“Momentum is building for U.S. nuclear energy, and the investments and tax incentives included in the Inflation Reduction Act guarantee a commitment to nuclear energy that will continue well throughout the nation’s journey to net zero,” said U.S. Department of Energy’s Office of Nuclear Energy in a statement with an ear-to-ear grin.

People on the left and right find common ground in support of nuclear energy, but their motivations differ. Some, like Stone, the movie-maker, are driven by the existential danger posed by climate change. Even the pleasant days of spring are spoiled by news that the carbon dioxide detector atop Mauna Loa has recently rolled past 425 parts per million. We’re still barreling toward a much rockier climate road.

Climate scientists have long talked about tipping points. It’s like your head turning gray, one hair at a time—until suddenly, it all goes gray or white. Or your little bald spot suddenly becomes very big.

This story is from Big Pivots 74, You might consider subscribing. Heck. a donation might be justified. What do you think?


We haven’t hit the big tipping points that have been predicted, but climate science, for all of its lingering uncertainties has mostly been dead-on in its predictions. Questions remain, such as when the miles-thick glaciers of Greenland, especially, but Antarctica, too, start splashing in an even more powerful way. Will all those snowbirds in Florida then be flying home? Tired of Front Range sprawl now? Worried about the porous borders. Just wait. Even here, the warming, more erratic climate will make life difficult. Remember the 2020 wildfire season.

But I’m preaching to the choir here. It’s why we have taken the potential for nuclear energy seriously. We need to electrify more of our economy and, and the electricity has to be stripped of residual emissions.

Some in Colorado, perhaps motivated more by economic concerns, see nuclear energy replacing coal plants. The last coal unit at Pueblo will close by the end of 2030. Xcel has guaranteed property tax revenues through 2040, but not to 2070, the original retirement date. Craig also faces giant uncertainties. Increased tourism? “We don’t want to become sheet-changers,” one Moffat County landowner told me.

Western Montrose County, where a uranium boom occurred during the 1950s —and which lost a small coal plant in 2019, is also interested in nuclear.

HB23-1247, titled “Assess Advanced Energy Solutions in Colorado,” now awaiting the governor’s signature, will direct study of nuclear energy but also other options, including geothermal, natural gas with carbon capture, and hydrogen.

All have upsides but questions marks. For example, green hydrogen, made from renewables and water, can store energy for use when renewables are unavailable. However, the technology remains costly. Too, some scientists question whether accidental release of hydrogen into the atmosphere will create as many problems as it solves.

At one legislative hearing, Will Toor, the director of the Colorado Energy, said he and his staff think that these technologies “could all play a role.”

Nuclear is not an emerging technology. It already provides 20% of U.S. electricity. We have a fleet of nuclear-powered submarines. They seem to operate without problems. But some questions remain about nuclear safety. Would you want a large-scale reactor in your town or city? I have to also wonder about nuclear technology falling into the wrong hands. Then there is the issue of cost and the lingering issue of waste disposal.

Kemmerer power plant

Many wonder if new nuclear technology can replace the power generation at a coal plant at kemmerer, Wyo.,

Many have been closely following the progress in Wyoming of a nuclear plant planned next to a coal plant at Kemmerer. TerraPower, the company founded by Bill Gates in 2008, says it will require less water and produce less nuclear fuel waste while plugging nicely into old coal plants. It projects cost of $4 billion for this plant that will use Natrium technology.

WyoFile reported that while in Kemmerer during early May, Gates called it a “pioneering move,” key to the global energy future. This project is projected to be ready in in 2030. PacifiCorp, a major regional power provider, has said it could add five more such Natrium reactors at existing coal-fired plants in Wyoming and Utah.

Another potential model is assembly-line-style production of small modular reactors, lowering costs. That sounds appealing, but by definition that model will not replace the big coal plants at Pueblo and Craig. For that matter, it does not yet exist.

Here in Colorado, I hear people with degrees in nuclear engineering express doubts about nuclear. State Sen. Chris Hansen, at the recent legislative hearing, objected to how a witness had characterized his skepticism about nuclear. “It has nothing to do with science or technology,” said Hansen, who has a degree in nuclear engineering. “It’s the cost profile.” He cited a recent Georgia reactor that came in at $33 billion, three times the projected cost. It’s not the only example.

Chuck Kutscher got his master’s degree in nuclear engineering and worked in the nuclear sector in California before turning his attention to solar in 1978 and moving to Colorado. “New nuclear power plants, including new U.S. reactor technologies currently under development, will likely be too expensive and take too long to build to make a significant contribution to climate change mitigation,” he says.

In Boulder, Oliver Stone’s movie talked little of costs.

But in Pueblo, a representative of Idaho National Laboratory openly conceded the question of cost. Speaking to the mayor’s energy commission, Christine King described the advancements in nuclear technology, including the elements that can enable the technology to complement renewables. These are detailed in a report issued in March called “Pathways to Commercial Liftoff: Advanced Nuclear.”

“Where the jury is out is whether we are  cost-competitive,” she said.

In response to questions, she said much the same thing, saying that cost remains the million dollar question.

She misplaced a comma or two in that string of zeroes, though. It’s the billion dollar question. Many billions.

Nuclear does deserve to be studied, and it’s true that renewable energy at one point was also regarded as too expensive. It remains possible. But all the facts about nuclear need to be on the table as part of that discussion. In this, there are many unanswered questions. Believing isn’t quite enough.



Allen Best
Follow Me

Pin It on Pinterest

Share This