Craig Station power plant, March 2010. Wikimedia Commons

At a June 15 meeting of the Associated Governments of Northwest Colorado (AGNC) in Rifle, State Senator Bob Rankin (R-Carbondale) discussed his desire to explore nuclear power generation as a possible supplement to the state’s transition away from thermal generating plants and toward renewables, such as solar and wind. It is a concept that he has championed for some time; he introduced a bill in the Senate earlier this year proposing to fund investigating the use of nukes (the bill was subsequently killed in committee).

At the meeting, chaired by Garfield County Commissioner Mike Sampson, Rankin specifically focused on his interest in installing a small nuclear facility at a coal-fired generating plant in northwestern Colorado near Craig that is scheduled to be fully retired by the end of 2030. He would like to see the power generating and transmission infrastructure reutilized rather than abandoned after the plant shuts down. He also anticipates that with such a transition, part of the workforce currently employed at the plant could be retained and retrained.

The plant

The Craig Station, in Moffat County just southwest of the city, consists of three coal-fired boiler units. Units 1 and 2 came online in 1979 and 1980, respectively, and Unit 3 in 1984. The three combined have an installed capacity of about 1,280 megawatts (MW), making the station one of the largest power-generating plants in the state. The facility is a major regional employer, whose roughly 250 workers make an average $100,000 annually.

The station is operated and partially owned by Tri-State Generation and Transmission Association, Inc. (Tri-State), a not-for-profit cooperative supplying power for Colorado and surrounding states. The plant is also partially owned by several other utility companies, including Xcel Energy.

Coal for the plant is supplied by two mines in Moffat County: Trapper Mine, just west of the plant, and Colowyo Mine, north-northeast of Meeker. The mines are also a significant employer, with about 250 and 200 workers, respectively. The entire coal output of both locations is dedicated to the Craig Station.

Lawsuits and settlement

For many years, the Craig plant has been a source of concern for environmental and conservation groups for the air pollution (mainly nitrogen oxides and particulate pollution) that it produces. Those effluents frequently caused hazy conditions in Rocky Mountain National Park and other public lands downwind from the plant. The state responded to federal mandates to reduce pollution in national parks and elsewhere by developing a Colorado Visibility and Regional Haze State Implementation Plan (SIP).

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) approved the SIP at the end of 2012, but the conservation advocacy group WildEarth Guardians (Guardians) and the National Parks Conservation Association did not think the SIP adequately addressed emissions from the Craig plant. Each brought lawsuits in federal court against the EPA in early 2013. Those suits were settled collectively in 2014, with the agreement that Tri-State would install pollution-abatement equipment at the plant on the three units.

Plant closure and repercussions

After subsequent negotiations among the parties, it was agreed in 2016 that Unit 1 would be retired from service by the end of 2025, and that pollution-control equipment to address nitrogen oxides and particulates would be installed on the two other units. The latter action was successfully accomplished in 2017.

However, discussions on the ultimate disposition of Units 2 and 3 continued, particularly after Colorado enacted a law in 2019 to reduce sources of greenhouse gasses (notably, carbon dioxide) in the state over the next three decades. Tri-State responded by conducting extended talks with state officials and its own member utilities. In January 2020, it announced a Responsible Energy Plan that would eliminate its coal-fired power plants in the state by 2030.

Specifically, it meant that Craig Units 2 and 3 would be voluntarily retired from service by Sept. 30, 2028, and Dec. 31, 2030, respectively — well ahead of their planned respective decommissioning dates of 2038 and 2044. This would also result in the closure of the two coal mines by 2030.

Not surprisingly, the news was taken hard by the city and county with Craig’s mayor stating that the community was experiencing “stages of grief.” The loss of several hundred high-paying jobs is expected to be a significant hit to the local economy. On top of that, the lost tax revenue from the three facilities will be significant, up to 50% of the current Moffat County total.

For its part, Tri-State has announced that plant employees will receive “a generous severance package, the opportunity to apply for vacancies at other Tri-State facilities, assistance with education and financial planning, and supplemental funding for health benefits.” In addition, Tri-State’s Mark Stutz told The Sopris Sun that the co-op has been “adding renewables for some time. (pinnaclemontessori) ” He explained, “We are currently in the middle of a process” to build renewable energy installations (solar and wind), continuing, “Eight new ones will come online by 2024.” That will add 1,000 MW of generating capacity. The ultimate goal is 4,000 MW by 2030, with some 200 MW of battery storage.

A nuclear option?

Nonetheless, officials like Rankin and Samson have argued that renewables alone are insufficient to replace the Craig Station. A letter in July from the Garfield County Board of County Commissioners (BOCC) to the U.S. Department of Energy supporting AGNC’s desire to explore nuclear-power feasibility in Western Colorado stated, “While wind and solar have shown their potential they clearly lack baseload capacity and 24/7 reliability.”

In a subsequent BOCC press release, which cited the commissioners’ unanimous approval for the AGNC initiative, Sansom, referring to the Craig Station, said, “It is a prime location because of the skilled workforce that is looking for new jobs, as well as the existing transmission lines.” He reiterated that view in a conversation with The Sun: “The [workers and infrastructure] are already there, so let’s keep using them.”

Along with long-standing concerns from opponents of nuclear power about environmental safety (a radiation leak), plant security (possibility of sabotage or terrorism) and the disposal of spent fuel (currently only stored at power plants), attention has also focused on the high cost of building nuclear plants.

Dave Reed, communications director for Carbondale-based Clean Energy Economy for the Region (CLEER), noted that while CLEER does not have a specific opinion on nuclear power, the high cost of building a nuclear facility “seems less economically feasible and scalable in a rural environment like ours than the smaller, decentralized power installations like solar or wind that CLEER has helped to develop.”

The cost of nuclear power was also pointed out by Colorado energy writer Allen Best in an Aug. 3 article in Big Pivots, an e-magazine. He gave the example of two reactors at a plant under construction in Georgia that are projected to cost more than $30 billion to complete. The article included a graph illustrating the much greater installed cost per MW-hour of nuclear compared to wind and utility-scale solar.

However, what Rankin, Samson and others are proposing is not the construction of the more conventional-type nuclear plants like in Georgia — pressurized-water reactors with massive containment structures and highly complex operating systems — but newer, smaller units, sometimes called “mini” reactors. Technology in that area has advanced dramatically in recent decades.

TerraPower, a company formed in 2008 by Microsoft founder Bill Gates, has developed such a smaller-scale reactor, which is cooled by molten sodium. The reactor reaches about the same temperature as a pressurized-water model (roughly 630-660 ℉), but that is well below the boiling point of sodium and allows it to operate at about sea-level atmospheric pressure. The company states that this makes it considerably cheaper to build and much simpler and safer to operate.

In 2021 TerraPower began the process of installing its first commercial application of the reactor at the site of a coal-fired plant in Kemmerer, Wyoming, that is set to close in 2025. The unit, scheduled to come online in 2028, is projected to cost up to $4 billion to build. However, the company expects future commercial installations to cost about one-fourth of that total, which, they state, makes it economically competitive with solar and wind power.

Will nuclear power generation come to Western Colorado, which, its promoters advocate, promises to deliver clean energy reliably as a supplement to renewables? Or will the environmental, security and cost issues raised by its opponents prevent its development? What happens in Kemmerer undoubtedly will be an important factor, as will continued advances in renewable technology — especially battery storage.

Jennifer Dickson, Guardians’ communications director, told The Sun, “We will continue to encourage state and federal leaders to look toward renewable energy as a solution [to thermal-power generation] and to invest in a just transition for workers creating sustainable jobs that will last into the future.” For its part, Tri-State’s Stutz said that there was no movement toward a nuclear installation at the plant site, but, “All options for the future of Craig are on the table.”