Political Support for Nuclear Energy

While voter support is important for understanding where a politician’s support will land, the relationship between a voter and a politician is a two-way feedback system. Voters will influence what politicians think, and politicians will also influence what voters think. With this, what political support nuclear energy has among politicians must be looked at.

Former President Obama supported an “all the above” energy policy, which was meant to be a plan that supported all kinds of energy in a way that combatted climate change. Though Obama’s Administration sent subsidy after subsidy to renewables like solar or wind, very few were for nuclear development. However, the Administration did support nuclear vocally to some degree and set up small programs for nuclear energy, which mostly related to research.

For the new Trump Administration, it is not clear exactly what action will be taken, however the administration seems to be more nuclear power minded than the last. For starters, Donald Trump will be allocating $120 million to the reapproval of the Yucca Mountain nuclear waste storage facility. As mentioned in previous posts, there is currently no repository for nuclear waste in the United States, but if Yucca Mountain is approved, that changes. The CEO of the Nuclear Energy Institute, Maria Korsnick, thinks that Donald Trump will be friendlier to nuclear energy, as it aligns with his infrastructure goals and put-to-work project goals. During the election season, Donald Trump showed support for nuclear energy development, but not over the development of natural gas. Furthermore, the Secretary of the Department of Energy, Rick Perry, supports cutting down on regulations surrounding nuclear energy.

For Colorado political support, there is very little to be seen. Governor Hickenlooper also follows the Obama Administration’s mission of an “all of the above” energy solution. However, when Hickenlooper speaks on all of the above solutions, he talks about wind, solar, natural gas, and oil, but no mention of nuclear energy. In the wake of Trump Administrations changes to environmental and energy policy changes, Governor Hickenlooper says that Colorado will continue to develop renewable energy as was being done under the Clean Power Plan. However, he makes no mention of nuclear energy. From what was gathered, no significant political voice in support of nuclear energy could be found in Colorado.

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Historical Perceptions of Nuclear Energy

Historically, it could be argued that nuclear was one of the most favored energy sources ever, and then soon became to one of the least liked energy sources. The political implications of nuclear energy for Colorado may be clear, but there is very little data on what Coloradan’s perceptions were historically. Therefore, we will examine the perceptions of Americans generally, although, Coloradan and American perceptions of nuclear energy are not exactly the same, they are most likely similar to some degree.

A year after World War 2 ended, the United States established the Atomic Energy Commission in order to cultivate the newly discovered power of the atom. In 1945, the book The Atomic Age Opens was published and popularly read, and expounded on a world in which nuclear energy would reign supreme so much that all other energy sources would most likely be abandoned. In a 1956 Gallup poll, Americans were asked “would you be afraid to have a plant located in this community which is run by atomic energy?” 70% answered that they were not afraid. According to Benjamin Sovacool, the military also, unsurprisingly, put its support behind nuclear energy. “Military planners believed that demonstrating the civilian applications of the atom would also affirm the American system of private enterprise, showcase the expertise of scientists, increase personal living standards, and defend the democratic lifestyle against Communist intrusion”.

However, the tune of Americans changed greatly throughout the years. Environmental groups, like the Sierra Club, originally supported nuclear energy as a clean energy source. As time went on, though, the Union of Concerned Scientists formed out of the Sierra club in 1969, and the Sierra Club officially turned against nuclear energy in 1974.

In 1973, Roper put out a similar poll to the 1956 Gallup poll, and asked Americans “how do you feel- that it would be safe to have an atomic energy plant someplace near here, or that it would present dangers?” Only 36% answered that it would be safe. While this language is not exactly the same as the Gallup poll, it can be seen that Americans’ attitude clearly changed towards the safety of nuclear energy between 1956, in which 70% answered they were not afraid of a nuclear plant, and 1973, in which 36% answered that a nuclear plant was safe.

Though, one of the most dramatic and visible changes in opinion towards nuclear energy occurred during the Three Mile Island accident. The accident occurred in the March of 1979. When Americans were polled in January, before the accident, 50% were in support of nuclear energy. When Americans were polled in April, after the accident, 39% were in support of nuclear energy. This is an 11 percent drop in only a few months, which is quite drastic in the context of public opinion.

To add to the Three Mile Island accident, 12 days before the accident the movie The China Syndrome with Jane Fonda was released. The movie depicted a disaster in which a meltdown at a nuclear reactor would mean a hole would be melted all the way to China. Throughout the movie, the nuclear power plant worker and managers are shadowed as shady and dishonest. Luckily, when Three Mile Island melted down only 12 days later, the doomsday depiction was proven wrong. After investigation of the scene, only a trivial amount of radiation leaked into the environment and there were no reported health effects from the accident. However, the public did not see it that way. The China Syndrome must have been correct if a meltdown happened so quickly after the movie was released.

As for Chernobyl, the American response was negative, though not as negative as Three Mile Island. Polls found that after the Chernobyl accident dropped around 6%.

In a report published by the Nuclear Energy Agency, a French nuclear energy organization, we can see the trends of public opinion for nuclear energy more recently. The report can be seen below and looks between 1998 and 2007.

Support for nuclear energy

From this figure, an overall increase in support for nuclear energy can be seen more recently. However it is only slightly increasing, and it is also fairly unstable.

Note: a lot of the information sourced in this blog is from Eric R.A.N. Smith’s book Energy, the Environment, and Public Policy which can be found on Amazon here: https://www.amazon.com/Energy-Environment-Public-Opinion-Smith/dp/0742510263

Current Direction of Energy Policy and the Energy Market in Colorado

While Colorado seems to have relatively high success in energy production and efficiency, this is not represented to ratepayers in Colorado. According to Michael Sandoval, an energy policy analysist in Denver, “Across all sectors of Colorado the cost of electricity has skyrocketed more than 67 percent between 2001 and 2014, easily exceeding median income growth and the expected rate of inflation for the same period”. The cost of electricity is going up in Colorado, which is not only being pushed onto residential ratepayers, but also industry ratepayers. Increasing electricity and energy costs means that the price of living goes up in that particular region without any particular rise in standard of living. According to Citizens Advice, a network of policy workers and charities in the United Kingdom, increasing prices in energy has grave impacts on “people’s ability to maintain a decent standard of living”.

Furthermore, according to the Colorado Energy Office (CEO), “Colorado is a leader in renewable energy, with investments in wind, solar, biomass, geothermal, small hydroelectric, and other renewable energy resources increasing over the last decade”. The Colorado Energy Office, which is the direct advisor to the governor and state policy makers on energy policy, has the vision to “help Coloradans live more prosperous and healthy lives by promoting innovative energy production and efficient energy consumption practices that are beneficial to the economic and environmental health of the state”.

However, the Colorado Energy Office lists nuclear energy as traditional energy, and not a renewable or clean energy, thus disqualifying it from various state and federal programs and subsidies. The Governor of Colorado, John Hickenlooper, makes many comments and actions in promoting different energy sources and energy policy within Colorado. In August of 2016, when introducing new orders for carbon emission reduction he said “the one thing that we have to accept as a state and a country is that we are going to continue to move toward cleaner energy”. In a Denver Post opinion piece, he says that Colorado, in the spirit of the Obama Administration’s energy agenda, needs to have a diverse and various energy production market, which would include oil, gas, wind, and solar, but makes absolutely no mention of nuclear energy.

Colorado’s current energy focus as of March 2017 has been largely to increase wind and solar farms. One of the largest projects focused on has been Xcel Energy’s Rush Creek Wind Farm. The project consists of a wind farm that has a top capacity of 600 megawatts and a 90 mile transmission line to move the generated electricity. The project will take up about 95,000 acres and cost around $1.1 billion. Xcel plans on being heavily subsidized through production tax credits from the federal government under the Obama Administration’s Omnibus Appropriations Act.

Current Oversight of Nuclear Energy on Federal and State Levels

The primary agency in charge of overseeing commercial nuclear energy plants on a federal level in the United States is the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, which is an independent agency separate from the U.S. Department of Energy. According to its website, the NRC “regulates commercial nuclear power plants and other uses of nuclear materials, such as in nuclear medicine, through licensing, inspection and enforcement of its requirements”. More specifically, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission oversees and regulates how nuclear waste is dealt with, how mill tailings are dealt with, and how states should form their laws and regulations around commercial nuclear energy plants.

The United States Department of Energy also deals with nuclear issues on a federal level; however, these deal more with nuclear weapons, overseeing disposal sites for nuclear fuel rods, and advancing research for nuclear energy. The Environmental Protection Agency and the Food and Drug Administration also play more minor roles in the oversight of nuclear energy.

The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission also offers the Agreement State Program, in which is relinquished regulatory authority, in accordance to NRC rules, to state governments. The State of Colorado became an agreement state on February 1st, 1968, and amended the agreement in 1982, which is the current agreement between the NRC and the Colorado State Government. With this agreement, the State of Colorado assumes control of regulating and rule making for uranium processing, fuel disposal, and electricity generation via a nuclear plant. However, the NRC retains control of very specific areas such as ocean disposal of nuclear waste, internationally importing or exporting radioactive material or fuel, and licensing disposal of waste.

Within the Colorado state government, the two agencies that would be most influential regarding nuclear energy policy are those that are already most involved with energy policy in general, namely, the Colorado Department of Natural Resources, the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, and the Colorado Energy Office. According to the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Agency, there are 79 regulations and legislative decisions regarding nuclear energy in Colorado. These regulations range between how byproducts of uranium mining is to be handled, radioactive dose amounts for employees, or how dosimetry machinery should be used and recorded.

According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, in the United States there are 15 states that have prohibitive regulations on nuclear energy that make it either illegal to construct new facilities or put huge regulatory barriers of entry for nuclear plants. Colorado is currently not one of these state, and does not have prohibitive entry for nuclear power.

Current Energy Production and Consumption in Colorado

Colorado is a leader in the United States for energy production. The state ranks 7th in total energy production with 3,042 trillion BTUs produced in 2014. Of this energy production, a large majority of this production comes from oil, which the state produced 9,200 thousand barrels in November of 2016, and natural gas, which the state produced a total of 1,704,836 million cubic feet of in 2015. There is no nuclear energy produced in Colorado.

For total electricity generation, Colorado ranks 27th with 4,332 thousand megawatt-hours generated in November of 2016. By source, the large majority of this electricity is produced by coal at over 2,500 thousand megawatt hours generated in November of 2016, meaning coal provides Colorado with over half of its electricity production. This is followed by nonhydroelectric renewables, which produced 985 megawatt hours, and natural gas fired generation, which produced 722 megawatt hours.

Colorado’s electricity prices rank 25th highest in the country at an average retail price of $0.1216 per kilowatt-hour.

For consumption, Colorado is not as significant compared to other states as they are with production. Colorado ranks at 34th most energy consumed with 276 million BTUs consumed per capita. According to the US census, the Colorado population was roughly 5,349,648 in 2014. In total this puts Colorado consumption at a total of 1.476 quadrillion BTUs.

Breaking this consumption down by source, the most significant sources of consumption are natural gas and coal. In 2014, natural gas accounted for 497.2 trillion BTUs consumed. Coal accounted for 350.5 trillion BTUs consumed. Gasoline for motors, such as cars, trucks, etc., accounted for 250.3 trillion BTUs consumed. All renewables, biomass, hydroelectric, solar, wind, etc., put together account for 131.4 trillion BTUs. Nuclear energy accounts for none of the energy consumed in Colorado. By sector, the most significant sectors of consumption are industrial and transportation, which account for 29% and 28% respectively. Residential accounts for 24%, and commercial accounts for 19%.

History of Nuclear Energy in Colorado

Colorado’s history with nuclear energy is limited. Only one nuclear reactor has been built in the state, and it has since closed down. The plant was located east of I-25 near Plateville, and was named the Fort Saint Vrain Plant. It was built, owned, and operated, in a limited capacity, by the Public Service Company of Colorado, which now goes by the name Xcel Energy.

The Public Service Company acquired a license to build their high-temperature, gas-cooled reactor in 1973, and invested $240 million to build it. The plant began operating in 1979, and remained in operation for 10 years. Until it was transformed in 1989, it only operated, on average, at about 14.6% it capacity. In 1989, the Public Service Company transformed it into a natural gas electric generator for an additional $340 million, and spent $25 million to build a spent fuel storage. This fuel storage is still on site and is under the discretion of the United States Department of Energy.

Though there have been no other nuclear energy reactors in Colorado, the state has a significant history with uranium mining, which is a primary source of fuel for nuclear energy. The state’s history with uranium mining dates back to the early 1900s, when radium and vanadium experienced a huge production boom, which are accessory minerals to uranium.

During the 1940s due to the emergence of nuclear weapons, uranium was specifically targeted in Colorado in mass, which continued through the 90s due to a potential nuclear energy increase in the United States. One of the most significant producers of uranium in Colorado is the Uravan Mining District in Montrose County which contributed over 850 tons of Uranium to the Manhattan Project. From 1947 to 1970, the Uravan district mined and produced around 24 million pounds of uranium ore. Along with the Uravan Mining District, Colorado has hosted the Schwartzwalder Mine in Boulder, which produced 17 million pounds of uranium ore; the Thornburg mine, which produced 1.25 million pounds of uranium ore; the Cyprus Hill mine at Hansen Creek, which produced 25 million pounds of low grade uranium ore; and many other smaller operations.

According to the Colorado Energy Office, there has been no uranium mining in the state of Colorado since 2009. However, there are still 18 active uranium mining sites permitted, 12 on temporary cessation, and 1 pending approval in the state as of 2014. Though these active mines are permitted, none are actually operating.

Nuclear Energy: Why Does Colorado Have None?

With the first nuclear reactor, Tennessee Valley Authority’s Bar Unit 2, being connected to the grid on June 3rd since 1996, nuclear energy may be making a comeback. According to the Colorado Department of Natural Resources in 2006, the US produced more than 60% of the world’s nuclear energy production with 103 nuclear reactors, all of which were created before 1996. Compared with all other forms of energy sources (fossil fuels and renewables), nuclear energy sources makes up 20% of electricity generation in the United States.

With Colorado ranked 6th in natural gas production and 7th in total energy production, it would be expected that Colorado would be one of the leaders in nuclear energy production, especially with it being emission-free in production. However, Colorado falls completely flat on this expectation, as it currently does not have any nuclear power plants. Colorado is one of twenty states that does not have a nuclear power plant.

This hasn’t always been the case. Colorado use to have a nuclear power plant, named Fort St. Vrain, near Platteville, Colorado which was built by General Atomics Company and owned by the Public Service Company. The station began construction in 1968, and started generating electricity for the grid in 1976. The station was an early prototype of a high temperature, gas cooled reactor (HTGR). It was the first commercial reactor for electricity to use this gas cooling method, and one of four early HTGRs that used a thorium fuel cycle. All four that used this method have been shut down. According to Tony Kindelspire, writer for the Boulder Daily Camera, “problems plagued the plant from the start.” The plant was shut down in 1989, and has since been made into a natural gas plant.

So why doesn’t Colorado have a nuclear power plant now? In the United States, nuclear power is regulated by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), but under the Agreement State Program, which Colorado is one of them, the NRC will relinquish portions of its regulatory jurisdictions to the state. However, a lot of regulatory power is still retained by the NRC. According to the National Conference of State Legislators, Colorado is not one of fifteen states that has regulations or laws against nuclear energy development or production. So it must not be regulatory barriers holding back Colorado’s nuclear potential.

This must mean it is just not economically feasible to create such energy in Colorado. Perhaps it is that the market currently does not favor this kind of production naturally, and energy producers should look elsewhere for energy production.

Nuclear power plants are actually pretty expensive to build. According to the Union of Concerned Scientists, costs rose from 2002 to 2008 from between $2-$4 billion to around $9 billion. However, the cost for the new Bar Unit 2 reactor was at $4.9 billion, and expects to add 1,150 megawatts to its grid. Compare this to the Rush Creek Wind Farm proposed to be built in eastern Colorado which costs $1 billion dollars, plus an additional $443 million accumulated from taxpayers from Production Tax Credits (PTC), and can only produce 600 megawatts if winds were blowing at exactly the correct speeds for 24 hours a day.

While the power plants might be quite expensive to build, the use of nuclear power plants to generate power is relatively cheap. According to the Nuclear Energy Institute, “in 2015, the average total generating cost for nuclear energy was $35.50 per megawatt-hour.” Furthermore, if the plant had more generating units per plant the price could get considerably lower. Compare this to wind energy, which has a generating cost around $40 per megawatt-hour, nuclear energy has cheaper generating costs.

Below is a graph provided by Energy Information Administration comparing the generating cost of different energy sources. Take note that the numbers represented are millions per kilowatt-hour, the hydro-electric category consists of both conventional hydroelectric and pumping storage, and the gas-turbine section is a conglomeration of gas turbines, internal combustion, wind, and photovoltaic. The cost is a total of fuel cost, operation cost, and maintenance cost. The full graph can be found here.

EIATotalGeneration cost

 

If it is the case that nuclear energy is simply too expensive to be a feasible method of producing electricity then so be it. However, it is evident that markets in Colorado are currently unfairly favoring wind and solar energy through subsidies and tax credits. Thus making it unclear if nuclear energy is truly unfavorable in the current market or is just being crowed out by government intrusions on the market. Perhaps skewed markets are the reason we do not see any nuclear power in Colorado. It is a question worth addressing.