Colorado Sen. Mark Udall has walked a fine line the last several years, advocating for new nuclear energy because of global climate change concerns while running the risk of alienating his Democratic, environmentalist base, many of whom still bitterly oppose nuclear power because of its legacy of mining pollution in the state.
In the wake of the Japan’s ongoing crisis at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant northeast of Tokyo, more than just the so-called “dirty front end” of nuclear power – Colorado’s rich but sometimes toxic uranium mining history – is being called into question. The issues of waste storage at the state’s only nuclear power plant – the now-defunct Fort St. Vrain – and a lack of water to cool future reactors also are being hotly debated.Still, Udall remains resolute in his support of increased nuclear power as a means of reducing the amount of carbon-spewing fossil fuels being burned to generate electricity and as a way to convert the nation’s transportation system from gas-powered to electric vehicles. In a statement last week to the Colorado Independent, Udall urged caution in moving ahead on nuclear power but reiterated his determination to do so.
“Our need to tackle climate change hasn’t gone away,” Udall said. “I’m a realist, and if you want to substitute electricity for petroleum in transportation, nuclear has to be part of the equation. However, any new nuclear power plants that are built — be they in Colorado or elsewhere in the United States — must involve lots of input from the local community and include robust permitting requirements, safety protocols and oversight.”
In Germany, that kind of cautious but continued backing of nuclear power just cost Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Christian Democrat Party control of a state to the anti-nuclear Green Party.
Just three days before the magnitude 9.0 Tohoku earthquake and subsequent tsunami killed thousands and wreaked havoc at the Fukushima Daiichi plant on March 11, Udall joined with Sens. Jeff Bingaman, D-N.M., and Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, in offering up the Nuclear Power 2021 Act (Senate Bill 512).
Industry analysts say the bill, similar to legislation approved in committee in 2009, would facilitate the development, testing and construction of smaller, modular reactors (300 megawatts) that would be easier to finance than traditional 1,200-megawatt or larger reactors, which reportedly cost $10 billion or more.
“Let’s just scatter [reactors] all over the place,” said Sharyn Cunningham of Colorado Citizens Against ToxicWaste, a grassroots activist group that’s been fighting expansion efforts and urging cleanup of the Cotter Mill uranium processing facility at Cañon City. “I’m just so put out with Udall’s position on this, and it’s all driven by the idea that we’ve got to do something about climate change and nuclear is the only answer.”
Contaminated well water on her property near the U.S. EPA Superfund Cleanup site at the Cotter Mill leads Cunningham to strongly believe the billions that would be spent on nuclear power should be pumped into much cleaner forms of renewable energy such as wind, solar and geothermal.
“That’s where Udall should be focusing his attention instead of buying into this nuclear is the only answer on climate change,” Cunningham said. Udall has advocated strongly for renewable forms of energy, including lobbying hard for the voter-approved Amendment 37, which saw Colorado adopt a renewable energy standard in 2004.
But since then Udall continues to make headlines with his support for nuclear power, risking the wrath of the environmental community and raising eyebrows by supporting new nuclear plants, even in his arid home state, where nuclear is seen by many as a bad bet because it consumes the most water of any of the thermoelectric technologies.
Last year, Udall created a stir by supporting a new nuclear proposal by Xcel Energy – the state’s largest electric utility. His office later backed away from those statements when Xcel officials said they had no concrete plans for a new nuclear plant.
Udall last week did not directly address a proposal for a clean energy park in Pueblo that could accommodate a nuclear power plant, nor did he rule out reviving nuclear power in Colorado – dormant since Fort St. Vrain near Platteville went offline in 1989. Fourteen metric tons of spent nuclear fuel remains onsite, in a separate facility about a quarter of a mile from Xcel’s gas-fired power plant. The U.S. Department of Energy owns and manages the storage facility.Xcel, based in Minnesota, operates two nuclear plants in that state — Prairie Island near Welch and a plant at Monticello – but doesn’t currently have any nuclear facilities in Colorado – or any future plans, for that matter.
“One of the strongest arguments for nuclear generation is zero air emissions,” said Xcel spokesman Mark Stutz. “That is the same case made for wind and solar generation. One major item to keep in mind in Colorado is that we are blessed with an abundance of solar and wind, or renewable energy resources.”
For now, the company appears focused on renewables and natural gas over nuclear and coal, recently adopting a controversial plan to convert several aging coal-fired power plants to primarily gas, with some contribution from wind and solar.
“Assuming at some point technology develops to the point where our industry can mitigate the intermittent nature of renewable resources — which means we can match up renewable generation with our peak demand periods, by storing the generation capabilities of renewables — then that seemingly would be the way to go,” Stutz said.
A public affairs spokesman for the state’s largest rural electric co-op, the 139,000-meter Intermountain Rural Electric Association, expressed some interest in nuclear but admitted to having to follow Xcel’s lead on the issue. Several years ago the co-op drew fire from some member-owners for investing $366 million in Xcel’s new Comanche 3 coal-fired power plant in Pueblo.
“As far as buying into [nuclear], we still have an exclusive contract with Xcel Energy on energy, so chances are it’s not something we would be buying into unless Xcel does,” said IREA’s William Schroeder. “With what’s going on in Japan that’s created another conversation about that product.
“We still think it has a viable place and we’ll just have to wait and see what engineering does and science does to address some of the concerns and things that happened in Japan to settle that. You look at the United States today, we have 104 nuclear [reactors] and they’ve all functioned efficiently and without any problems for a long, long, long, long time.”
Despite producing 20 percent of the nation’s electricity, nuclear power has been dealt a serious public relations setback by the Japan disaster, and polling in the United States reflects that renewed mistrust. Some analysts say natural gas, abundant in Colorado and 50 percent cleaner burning than coal, will be the biggest beneficiary. Opponents of Colorado’s uranium mining revival say nuclear power has always been a risky investment.
“While the tragic disaster in Japan will certainly have an impact on the uranium industry, ultimately the industry, especially in the U.S., is a highly volatile market regardless of nuclear accidents,” said Hilary White of Sheep Mountain Alliance, an environmental group suing to stop a proposed uranium mill in Montrose County.
Editor’s note: This is the second in a three-part series on the future of nuclear power and uranium mining in Colorado. Part one is here.