Pueblo County wants to replace Comanche coal plant with nuclear power. Local activists are worried.

The county’s coal-fired power plant could close 30 years earlier than anticipated

By: - October 29, 2021 5:00 am

Pueblo activist Jamie Valdez speaks in front of the Pueblo County courthouse on Oct. 23, 2021. (Sara Wilson/Colorado Newsline)

Driving into Pueblo, the Comanche Generating Station is merely a speck on the horizon, just a few smoke stacks rising above the plains towards the southeast part of town.

What that coal-fired power plant represents, however, is much larger: millions of dollars in annual tax revenue for Pueblo County, a stain on the area’s environment to local activists, and a central sticking point as Colorado navigates its transition to clean energy without abandoning communities that have historically benefited from fossil fuel production.

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Those issues are coming to a head earlier than expected with Xcel Energy’s announcement earlier this year that it plans to close the Comanche plant entirely by 2040 — three decades earlier than promised — in order to comply with the state’s emission reduction goals. That clean energy plan also calls for an operations reduction of Comanche 3 to 33% starting in 2030. The Comanche power plant is made up of three individual units, and Pueblo County already worked with Xcel to agree on an early closure for both Comanche 1 and Comanche 2.

The acceleration of Comanche 3’s closure is a crisis for Pueblo County leaders, who have structured major capital improvement projects around the anticipated tax revenue from the plant. In 2021, the county’s share of those taxes exceeded $7.7 million, according to testimony submitted to the Public Utilities Commission by County Commissioner Garrison Ortiz on Oct. 11.

He argues that the success of projects ranging from infrastructure expansion to additional community amenities hinge on the fate of Comanche 3.

In that testimony, Ortiz wrote that “the closure of Comanche 3 with the loss of property taxes and jobs will be devastating to our community and it appears this decision is premature.”

With that likely early closure of Comanche 3, some county leaders want a nuclear power station to replace that energy production and — crucially for them — the tax base. Pueblo consumers do not actually receive any of the power generated by Comanche. County leadership believe that so-called small modular reactors technology is the clean energy source that will be deployable by 2030, and they argue that the technology has become much safer since catastrophes like the Chernobyl meltdown.

“That’s the one that is probably able to move forward quicker — nuclear,” said Commissioner Chris Wiseman.

It would be the first nuclear power plant in Colorado since Fort St. Vrain Generating Station stopped generating power in 1989.

SMRs have been touted as safe and economical replacements for fossil fuels; NuScale, an Oregon-based company, is currently planning to build a nuclear power plant in Idaho on the site of a former coal plant. That will be the company’s first nuclear plant with its SMR technology.

“Small modular nuclear reactors offer an opportunity for true decarbonization with safe, flexible and affordable zero-carbon baseload technology that will help achieve a decarbonized energy system. They are particularly well-suited to siting at retiring coal plants, helping host communities and plant workers participate in the clean energy transition,” NuScale’s vice president for marketing and communications Diane Hughes wrote in an email.

She added that existing infrastructure on coal-fired power plants sites can be repurposed for a nuclear site, such as cooling water delivery systems, demineralized water, potable water, site fire protection and switchyards.

Xcel Energy operates two nuclear power plants in Minnesota.

While Wiseman said the county isn’t completely sold on the idea yet, the nuclear option has been central to the conversation. In July, the county held a town hall with presenters from NuScale. Now, Wiseman is putting together a committee to look at possible alternative energy sources and hopes to have proposals before he retires from elected office at the end of next year. He leaves open the possibility that nuclear is not the answer, but rather some other emerging technology like green hydrogen.

Ortiz urged in his testimony that the PUC either let Xcel Energy build and operate a zero-emission nuclear replacement of Comanche or order the company to continue to make property tax payments through 2070.

“That would give the three utilities who own Comanche 3 an incentive to determine how to build replacement generation in our community and provide us with a Just Transition into the Clean Energy economy,” Ortiz wrote. Intermountain Rural Electric Association and Holy Cross Energy also own Comanche 3 with Xcel Energy.

What about risk of nuclear meltdown?

Even as the nuclear idea grows legs, some people are staunchly opposed to the idea and the way county leaders are approaching it.

“When we think about a nuclear plant being brought to Pueblo … the possibility of a meltdown just keeps me up at night. What that could mean for Pueblo is that this whole area could be unlivable for generations to come,” said community organizer Jamie Valdez during an Oct. 23 rally for a nuclear-free Pueblo.

“I don’t care about whether we’re talking about jobs or the economy or anything else. It’s not going to matter if we can’t breathe the air or drink the water,” he said.

When we think about a nuclear plant being brought to Pueblo ... the possibility of a meltdown just keeps me up at night. What that could mean for Pueblo is that this whole area could be unlivable for generations to come.

– Jamie Valdez, community organizer

Members of Mothers Out Front, 350 Colorado, and the Rocky Mountain Peace and Justice Center spent that Saturday afternoon canvassing areas of Pueblo that could be in the “impact zone” of a nuclear plant, primarily the South Side neighborhoods of Salt Creek and Bessemer. Valdez said they handed out nearly 4,000 flyers about the issue.

“Going through the neighborhoods and talking to people, it seems like people have just not been asked. When they are being used as sacrifice zones for these polluting industries that don’t serve them, no one comes and asks them,” said Giselle Herzfeld, a nonprofit organizer from Longmont who came down to Pueblo for the day of action.

Why nuclear instead of solar, wind?

Opponents of the nuclear idea want the county to more seriously consider replacing Comanche 3 with renewables such as solar, water or wind power.

“With all the creative thinking that exists in our community and around the state, I know we could come up with multiple ways of replacing that tax money,” said Pueblo activist Velma Campbell.

But that might not be feasible, county leaders say, because something like a solar farm doesn’t measure up to the economic benefits of a nuclear plant, which would generate more power and would be staffed year-round.

“Solar projects, however, make tens of millions of dollars for the investors, but solar projects do not replace the tax base of a coal plant such as Comanche 3. Solar facilities do not provide long term ‘family-supporting’ jobs. Instead they provide short term construction jobs that do not pay anything close to what our citizens earn who work at Comanche 3,” Ortiz argued in his testimony.

Plus, a nuclear plant would have a significantly smaller footprint. The same power that a 12-module nuclear plant can generate on 0.05 square miles would take 94 square miles of wind power and at least 17 square miles of solar power, Hughes from NuScale said.

Pueblo County has seen renewable energy projects on a smaller scale, such as the Bighorn Solar project that will power EVRAZ’s new steel plant and a boom in homeowners turning to solar power for personal use. The Bighorn Project is expected to generate around 240 megawatts of power. For comparison, Ortiz argued in his testimony that a Comanche replacement would need to generate at least 750 megawatts.

Activists worry that county leadership is being lured into an experimental and unsafe energy alternative. They called the July town hall “secretive” and accused county leaders of having these conversations behind closed doors.

“We are being targeted because the nuclear industry, including NuScale, has a campaign going on to place nuclear power plants in old coal fired power plants all over the country. We are the foot in the door,” Campbell said. “Our commissioners are not doing their homework, they aren’t looking into the risk … in my opinion, they are being made to feel like bigwigs by people in the nuclear industry and have fallen in love with themselves.”

For now, the entire argument is conceptual. The PUC could decide on the fate of Comanche in December after it hears arguments on Xcel Energy’s future operations.

Wiseman hopes that whatever exists in a post-Comanche Pueblo County, it comes from a place of collaboration.

“I don’t see this as an adversarial process at all,” he said. “I’m not sold on anything and I’m hoping that folks will join us as we go through this process.”

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Sara Wilson
Sara Wilson

Sara Wilson covers state government, Colorado's congressional delegation, energy and other stories for Newsline. She formerly was a reporter for The Pueblo Chieftain, where she covered politics and government in southern Colorado. Wilson earned a master's degree in journalism from Northwestern University, and as a student she reported on Congress and other federal beats in Washington, D.C.

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