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Nuke interest resurges in state Print

by Todd Hartman and Gargi Chakrabarty
Rocky Mountain News
Saturday, June 7, 2008

Utilities, others taking hard look at energy source

Nuclear power, long in public disfavor because of safety, waste and cost concerns, is muscling its way back into the energy picture.

While its return is most prominent internationally - where dozens of countries are seeking nuclear generators as a source of new energy supplies - it's also getting a rethink in Colorado and across the United States.

Nationally, worries of pollution from coal-burning power plants are spurring renewed interest. Meanwhile, the nuclear industry has launched a major public relations campaign touting itself as "clean-air energy."

And Colorado, too, is again paying more attention to generating energy from splitting atoms:

* Tri-State, a major electricity provider to Colorado's small towns and rural regions, wants to study the possibility of a nuclear power plant on the eastern plains.

* Xcel Energy, the state's largest electricity provider, which owns nuclear plants in the Midwest, said nuclear power will be "on the table" as it considers future energy sources in the Centennial State.

* Colorado congressman and U.S. Senate candidate Mark Udall, a Democrat and a longtime champion of renewable energy, says nuclear should be part of the conversation as the country tries to ease off of fossil fuels. His opponent, Republican Bob Schaffer, also supports nuclear power.

* And most significantly for Colorado, the state is the nation's third-largest source of radioactive fuel - uranium. And whether or not another nuclear plant is ever built here, Colorado appears to be in for another mining boom as international demand for uranium ramps up.

"We're seeing tremendous increases and the beginnings of activity right now," said Jim Burnell, director of the minerals program at the Colorado Geological Survey. A record 10,000 new mining claims were filed on federal lands in the state in 2007, with the bulk of those for uranium, Burnell said.

The nuke is back, said Robert Meyer, a Fort Collins-based energy consultant with long experience in the nuclear industry.

"It's happening. . . . Nuclear power is being further considered (where it already exists) . . . and reconsidered in countries that had decided to back away from it," he said. "We're seeing it everywhere."

Pros and cons

The nuclear renaissance seems fueled most powerfully by growing unease with fossil-fuel-based energy. Burning coal, oil and gasoline produces a host of air pollutants and is a major source of greenhouse gas emissions. And rising oil prices are accelerating the move toward fuel substitutes, higher-mileage cars and mass transit.

"The handwriting is on the wall," Meyer said.

Still, no one expects fossil fuels to go away, not for decades, at least.

And skeptics remain unconvinced of nuclear's future, citing the enormous expense - several billions of dollars - needed to build a nuclear plant and the unresolved problem of where to put nuclear waste when highly radioactive fuel rods are spent.

"The private capital market isn't investing in new nuclear plants, and without financing, capitalist utilities aren't buying," wrote Snowmass-based renewable energy expert Amory Lovins and two others in a paper this spring called "Forget Nuclear," outlining the industry's many challenges.

"The few purchases, nearly all in Asia, are all made by central planners with a draw on the public purse. In the United States, even government subsidies approaching or exceeding new nuclear power's total cost have failed to entice Wall Street."

Many - although not all - environmental groups continue to disparage nuclear power as well. Greenpeace attacked nuclear energy as "1950s technology" last month when it criticized a Senate climate change bill for inclusion of subsidies for nuclear power.

"After 50 years of unresolved safety and waste-disposal issues, it perplexes many Americans why Congress would support massive subsidies for the nuclear industry," said John Passacantando, Greenpeace USA's executive director, in a press statement. "Nuclear power is a dirty and dangerous distraction from real global warming solutions."

National security watchers voice another concern: More nuclear power means greater risk of weapons proliferation, with rogue countries or terrorist groups taking possession of the basic tools needed to build nuclear arsenals.

Holly plant considered

But nuclear advocates such as Meyer say the costs and benefits of nuclear compare increasingly favorably to those of more conventional, carbon- based fuels. Nuclear becomes even more economically attractive if and when governments begin taxing global warming emissions from coal and gas- fired power plants.

They also argue that, contrary to some popular perceptions derived largely from Russia's Chernobyl disaster in 1986, it's the safest source of energy available.

"You really won't find a cleaner source of power, even though people get their hackles up when you say it," Meyer said. "There's no emissions, no carbon dioxide produced, very little waste produced. It's a very nice way to produce electricity as long as the reactors are designed well and operated well."

In Colorado, energy giant Xcel has no short-term plans for nuclear power, but a spokesman said it "certainly" will be looked at in future planning.

Xcel Energy CEO Dick Kelly has suggested utilities should be rewarded for managing carbon emissions and building clean-energy or zero-emission power plants, such as wind, solar or nuclear. For areas that don't have abundant wind and solar potential, nuclear has to be an option, he has said.

Tri-State Generation and Transmission Association, which produces and distributes power in rural areas of four states, including Colorado, decided this year to study the possibility of building a nuclear plant near Holly.

Nuclear, like coal, can run a power plant 24-7, without interruption. It's considered an ideal source of "baseload" power generation - the steady stream needed to meet the predictable, day-to-day consumption demands from refrigerators to factories.

A recent Tri-State study found the utility would need another 1,600 megawatts of such baseload power to meet demand by 2020 (a megawatt is roughly enough electricity to power 1,000 homes). Last month, Tri-State's board asked its staff to look at the possibility of a nuclear plant.

"The board didn't set a timetable," said Tri-State spokesman Jim Van Someren, emphasizing the idea is in its infancy.

Should the utility build such a plant, a newly acquired 5,000 acres north of Holly in far southeastern Colorado would be considered, Van Someren said. The land, along with water rights, originally was purchased to build a coal-fired plant.

Tri-State would consider approaching Xcel Energy as a partner, Van Someren said.

"Obviously there are challenges with nuclear as well; permitting a nuclear plant could be just as time-consuming as a coal plant," Van Someren said. "Certainly the cost of building a nuclear plant would come into play."

Nukes in Senate race

The changing energy landscape isn't lost on Rep. Udall, who has long championed greater efforts to incorporate wind and solar energy into the power portfolio. More recently, he has mentioned nuclear as also needing consideration, a view that could make some of his environmentalist backers wary.

"There is growing interest in the use of nuclear power for several reasons, including the rising cost of electricity generation and the urgency of addressing climate change," Udall said in a statement provided to the Rocky Mountain News. "I have long felt that we need to have a more diverse power generation mix - and nuclear power plants should be on the table as part of that mix."

Even so, Udall raised several caution flags.

He said the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, which oversees safety and security, needs more resources. And efforts to safely store and dispose of spent nuclear fuel must continue.

"In addition to the thorny problem of waste storage, the other big hurdle is potential weapons proliferation and security," Udall said.

Udall said he is skeptical that more federal subsidies should be provided to the industry, a move some in Congress are pushing.

"Like the oil industry, nuclear is a reasonably mature industry. And while we should always keep an open mind about how best to manage regulatory concerns (like liability, safety, waste storage), I am not convinced taxpayers should heavily subsidize this industry," he said.

Schaffer, also running for the open Senate seat, called nuclear "a consistent, reliable" source of baseload power, immune to the swings inherent in wind and solar power. The steady electricity supplied by nuclear, he said, would actually allow more use of alternative energy sources on top of that.

"You have to be able to sustain a consistent baseload demand in order for development of a new wind farm," Schaffer said.

He said the United States needs to re-evaluate its long-standing reluctance to reprocess spent nuclear material. Such a move would reduce the amount of nuclear waste stored around the country.

"Most other countries that have a large nuclear component do not tie their own hands with respect to reprocessing," Schaffer said, "and it dramatically reduces the nuclear waste stream."

Most critical for Colorado in the near term, though, will be a potential rush on the state's vast uranium stores.

For years, an ample stockpile of uranium kept prices down and interest in new mining low - even as the United States imports more than 95 percent of the uranium needed to run more than 100 nuclear reactors that provide 20 percent of the nation's electricity.

But all that changed in the past three years. Stockpiles shrank, and Congress' 2005 Energy Policy Act created new incentives for nuclear energy. In response, uranium prices began climbing, spiking in 2007 at $135 a pound. Prices have since settled at about $65 a pound, but that's still far above the $10 to $30 a pound uranium was fetching this decade.

The recent surge in claims doesn't mean each one will get mined, but it's a sign Colorado's long history of uranium mining, almost all of it on the Western Slope, could return big time.

"There's probably all kinds of (uranium) grades in there; some of those might have had just enough (uranium) to kick off a Geiger counter," said state geologist Vince Matthews of the rash on new claims. "It's not clear what will actually be mined out of them."

Even Weld a possibility

The rush isn't limited to remote mineral belts in southwestern Colorado. One company, Powertech, wants to take the radioactive metal from 600 feet underground in Weld County. Instead of using giant shovels and earthmovers, the company wants to use an "in-situ" technique.

The requires poking hundreds of holes in the ground, pushing water down the holes, leaching uranium out of ore then drawing the uranium-laced water to the surface and stripping it out there.

Neighbors have organized to fight the proposal, fearful that uranium mining will contaminate precious groundwater they use for drinking, livestock and crops.

Robin Davis, with the citizens group Coloradoans Against Resource Destruction, said her group wants to avoid the debate over nuclear power: "We are interested in clean water," she said. "Colorado is already in short supply of water; we see no reason to tamper with what little we already have."

But Meyer said uranium mining - both traditional and in-situ - has advanced and can be conducted with far fewer environmental impacts. He called in-situ mining "a system that can work very well."

Nuclear power as whole, Meyer said, can win the public over.

"As people participate in the licensing process, (they will) see the NRC is very serious this time around - and there will be any number of opportunities for people in nearby communities to participate . . . to make sure if some sort of facility is built nearby (that) it's run properly.

"I think people will come around to that."

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