Get Big Pivots


by Allen Best

A bill that would have allocated $250,000 to study the potential for using new small-modular nuclear reactors in Colorado was killed by a legislative committee on Feb. 17 on a party-line vote.

Several Democrats on the committee cited the high cost of nuclear power in explaining why they would oppose the appropriation. Sen. Sonya Jaquez Lewis cited U.S. Energy Information Administration data that showed nuclear power more than twice as expensive than solar.

As originally proposed by State Sen. Bob Rankin, a Republican from Carbondale, SB22-073 would have required the state’s economic development agency to commission a study at a cost of $500,000 to be completed by July 2024. He offered amendments to move the study to the Colorado Energy Office and cut the cost in half.

Rankin described nuclear energy as a way to help Colorado meet its goals of emissions reductions while also helping Craig and Hayden, two communities he represents, transition economically after the coal plants close later in this decade.

“This bill is about achieving the state’s energy goals,” Rankin told members of the Senate State, Veterans, and Military Affairs Committee. He said its’s unclear how electric utilities can decarbonize with wind and solar beyond 80%.

“If we consider climate change to be an existential threat, then we need to consider all options,” he said. Nuclear modular reactors would help bridge the political divide, he added.

“We cannot solve all the problems of the energy transition with the focus (exclusively) on solar and wind,” he said.

New nuclear generation technology perhaps can be adapted to make use of existing coal-fired infrastructure, most definitely including transmission lines, Rankin said, while providing continued economic stability for currently coal-dependent communities.

Craig Generating Station paid $10.84 million in property taxes this year while Hayden paid $4.98 million.

“We need to take advantage of those existing facilities and the economies of those towns which are struggling with this transition.” he said.

Three states and one U.S. territory are pursuing nuclear, he said, citing Wyoming, Utah, Washington, and Puerto Rico. “Why should Colorado not be part of that?”

Small modular nuclear reactors—the technology being pursued by Bill Gates and others at Kemmerer, Wyo.—are safe, and “the economics are changing daily.”

While Rankin later expressed annoyance that opponents seemed ready to kill nuclear bereft of study, supporters of the study bill who testified on Feb. 15 were just as ready to proclaim nuclear an answer to reliable baseload generation.

“We believe small modular reactors are part of the solution and should be incentivized,” said Tim Coleman, testifying on behalf of the Colorado Rural Electric Association.

Others, such as Madison Hilly, founder of an organization called Campaign for a Green Nuclear Deal, emphasized climate benefits. Eric Meyer, an individual who identified himself as active in Democratic affairs, emphasized that supporters of nuclear energy cross party lines.

If outnumbered, opponents were just as passionate.

“Our primary goal should be to solve climate-related issues for future generations and not create more complex and hazardous ones,” said Claire O’Brien of the Rocky Mountain Peace and Justice Center.

Several brought up cost. “Cheap dreams, expensive reality,” said one. Jan Rose, representing Colorado Coalition for a Livable Climate, described a nuclear plant as a $4 billion expense that was unnecessary and should not be put on the back of Xcel Energy ratepayers.

Many comments referenced Rocky Flats, where plutonium triggers for nuclear warheads has been manufactured, creating an environmental mess that arguably remains even now, but also Pueblo. There county commissioners have shown an interest in seeing nuclear power as a replacement to the Comanche coal units.

Rankin said partly he initially chose the economic development agency because he saw nuclear energy as an economic development strategy.

“Not to be too critical, but the energy office has not shown interest in nuclear,” he said. They have been focused on wind and solar.”

The bill was laid over until Thursday, Feb. 17. If it survives, it may have an interesting encounter with another Colorado state senator who actually has a degree in nuclear engineering. Sen. Chris Hansen earned a bachelor’s degree at Kansas State after marveling at a nuclear reactor when still a high school junior. Later, he veered his studies to economics. Asked by a Logan County commissioner in 2019 why the state didn’t consider nuclear, he replied authoritatively: because of the high cost.

Allen Best
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