The billion(s) dollar question
Nuclear offers solution to climate change but cost often overlooked
by Allen Best
Oliver Stone has a new movie, “Nuclear Now,” that made its Colorado debut in Boulder on May 1. In it, Stone argues that the grave risks posed by climate change require we 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 will hear about nuclear.
In the background is the federal government, offering gambling money on all sorts of decarbonization solutions, including nuclear.
People on the left and right find common ground in support of nuclear energy, but their motivations differ. Some, like Stone, 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 in Hawaii recently rolled past 425 parts per million, up from 315 ppm in the 1950s. We’re dancing ever farther on the snow cornice, fiddling with our phones in busy traffic. We’re flirting with real danger here.
Some in Colorado see nuclear energy replacing coal plants. The last coal unit at Pueblo will close no later than 2031. 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. All have upsides but question marks. Green hydrogen, made from renewables and water, can store energy for use when renewables are unavailable. However, the technology remains costly. Also, some scientists question whether accidental release of hydrogen into the atmosphere will create as many problems as it solves.
Nuclear can also back up intermittent renewables. Nuclear does provide 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? One also has to wonder about nuclear technology falling into the wrong hands.
Many have been closely following the progress in Wyoming of a nuclear plant planned next to a coal plant at Kemmerer, in the southwestern part of the state. TerraPower, the company founded by Bill Gates in 2008, says the $4 billion project will require less water and produce less nuclear waste and use state-of-the-art “Natrium technology.” Using a “sodium fast” reactor and a molten salt energy storage system, the company touts the technology can provide “clean, flexible energy and stability, and integrate seamlessly into power grids with high penetrations of renewables.”
WyoFile reported that while in Kemmerer during early May, Gates called it a “pioneering move,” key to the global energy future. This project is expected to be done by 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 it does not yet exist.
In Colorado, however, 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. “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 said.
In Boulder, Stone’s movie talked little of costs. But in Pueblo, a representative of Idaho National Laboratory, speaking to a municipal energy study group, openly conceded that cost remains the million-dollar question.
She missed a few zeroes, though, it would seem. It’s the billion-dollar question. Many billions.
Allen Best publishes Big Pivots, which chronicles the energy and water transitions in Colorado and beyond. Subscriptions are free at bigpivots.com; donations are welcomed.