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.