Nuclear power is the best way to replace the Pueblo coal plant within this decade, county tells state regulators

Hart Van Denburg/CPR News
Coal transported from a BNSF freight train piles up at the Comanche 3 Power Generating Station operated by Xcel Energy, southeast of Pueblo on Tuesday, Feb. 23, 2021.

Pueblo County officials say if state regulators want to close its local coal plant this decade, they should allow Colorado's largest utility to replace it with a nuclear power station.

The statement, filed by Garrison Ortiz on behalf of the three-member county commission with the Public Utilities Commission last week, comes as regulators consider potential closing dates for the Comanche Generating Station, the state’s largest power plant and its largest single source of greenhouse gas emissions.

The filing also affirms the county’s interest in nuclear power and in generating electricity locally from sources beyond wind and solar.

“We've tried to take a look at the entire gamut of what's available to us, but technology is only to a certain point,” Ortiz said in an interview. “We're trying to be realistic and we're trying to just look at the feasibility of small modular nuclear technology in the community.”

The county’s filing was in response to Xcel Energy’s proposal to close the plant’s newest coal-fired unit by 2040, three decades earlier than anticipated. Environmental groups want the plant to close by the end of the decade, citing mounting evidence that phasing out fossil fuels is essential to preventing the worst effects of climate change.

In the filing, Ortiz says modular nuclear reactors are the only carbon-neutral way to replace the energy, jobs and property taxes lost by closing Comanche this decade.

He also argues the state should allow Xcel to build and operate a carbon-neutral power station if regulators move to close the coal plant by 2040. If that doesn’t happen, commissioners want Xcel to continue paying a combined $605 million in property taxes through 2070, according to the filing.

In a statement, Xcel Energy spokesperson Julie Borgen did not specifically address the county’s proposal for a nuclear power plant and said the utility would evaluate suggestions sent in by other agencies and organizations.

This is not the first time county commissioners have considered bringing nuclear power to Pueblo. A local attorney had proposed building a nuclear power plant in 2011, but the commission rejected the plan after mounting outcry from the public and a high-profile nuclear disaster in Fukushima, Japan.

In July, the county hosted nuclear energy company NuScale for a presentation on new modular nuclear reactors. Ortiz said he wants officials to conduct a formal study on whether nuclear power could be generated in Pueblo County.

County officials are also interested in the potential of generating power from “green” hydrogen, an emerging technology that uses renewable energy and water to create a carbon-neutral fuel, he said. 

“When we talk about nuclear, it’s specific to Comanche,” Commissioner Chris Wiseman said. “As green hydrogen develops, we’d like to take a look at that, too. And we have not walked from continuing to develop Pueblo as a renewable energy hub.”

NuScale does not have plans to open offices in Colorado, a company spokesperson said in an emailed statement.

Environmental groups and local activists have opposed nuclear energy in their campaigns to close Comanche by 2030. Jamie Valdez, a community organizer for the Pueblo chapter of Mothers Out Front, said there are “more creative, better alternatives” than modular nuclear reactors.

“All nuclear reactors produce radioactive nuclear waste,” Valdez said. “They’re really just the same old nuclear reactors but smaller.”

The prospect of nuclear power has divided local officials in Pueblo. One opponent, Pueblo Mayor Nick Gradisar, said the electricity generated by the plant wouldn’t be used by local residents — similar to the current arrangement with Comanche. Xcel’s largest customer in Pueblo, the EVRAZ Rocky Mountain Steel mill, will soon be powered mainly by a massive solar array run by Lightsource BP.

The Public Utilities Commission could decide on Comanche’s closing date after hearing formal arguments on the future of Xcel’s operations in Colorado in December.