Pueblo County drops support for nuclear power after facing backlash from residents

Hart Van Denburg/CPR News
Solar energy panels in front of the coal-fired Comanche 3 Power Generating Station operated by Xcel Energy, southeast of Pueblo on Tuesday, Feb. 23, 2021.

Pueblo County officials say they are pulling back their support for replacing the state’s largest coal-fired power plant with a nuclear reactor following a public outcry from residents.

The decision is a quiet reversal by county commissioners who had expressed interest in nuclear technology last year, going so far as to host a presentation by a nuclear energy company and raise the proposal in regulatory filings.

“Sometimes we're wrong. We step out, we make a mistake,” County Commissioner Chris Wiseman told CPR News last week. “We stepped out too quick on this particular issue. We did not vet the community in the way that we should have, and now we're trying to do that.”

The county recently convened a group of local business people and environmentalists to study all potential alternatives once the Comanche Generating Station, the largest coal power plant in the state, is decommissioned. The Colorado Public Utilities Commission is expected to announce a closing date for the plant in the coming weeks.

The prospect of bringing nuclear energy to Pueblo drew comparisons to an effort by a local attorney in 2011 to build a nuclear power plant in the county. That proposal crumbled after an accident at a nuclear plant triggered by an earthquake and tsunami in Fukushima, Japan.

County commissioners studied small modular reactor technology last year after Xcel Energy said it planned to close the last coal-fired generator at Comanche by 2040. Environmental groups pushed the utility to accelerate the closure timeline to 2030.

The county held a forum on nuclear energy last summer, inviting Oregon-based NuScale to give a presentation on how its small modular reactors could replace the retiring coal plant. In a public filing later that year, County Commissioner Garrison Ortiz said the nuclear reactors were the only carbon-neutral way to replace the jobs, energy and tax base provided by Comanche if it closed this decade.

Many Puebloans criticized the county in local newspapers, ad campaigns and hearings in front of the Public Utilities Commission. A report released this week by the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis, a nonprofit organization studying energy markets, found that small modular reactor projects are riddled with rising costs and construction delays. 

The report singled out NuScale, saying the company’s estimates were speculative given that it has not built, operated or tested its designs at commercial scale. In a statement, NuScale vice president of marketing Diane Hughes said the report was “factually inaccurate and inherently flawed,” mischaracterizing the costs and timelines of NuScale’s projects. 

Wiseman said he and the other commissioners have not spoken with NuScale representatives recently.

“Any change in Pueblo should be represented by the full community,” Wiseman said, adding that his advisory group would look at the potential of all different replacement technologies for Comanche.

Pueblo Mayor Nick Gradisar formed his own energy advisory group last year. Steve Nawrocki, the group’s chair and former City Council president, said its focus is on how the city can reach its commitment to using 100 percent renewable energy by 2035.

“They should’ve had community input first,” Nawrocki, who is also in Wiseman’s advisory group, said of the county commissioners. “It’s not very popular today when elected officials make decisions without having any communication with their constituency.”

Wiseman said he is still interested in generating more solar energy in the county. Its largest project, an array of 750,000 panels launched last year, will provide nearly all the power needed for the city’s signature steel mill.

The newest coal-fired generator at Comanche was knocked offline earlier this month following electrical issues, the latest in a long history of closures. Crews are disassembling the generator for repairs, according to an Xcel Energy spokesperson.