PUEBLO, Colo. (AP) – At a time when Japan’s nuclear crisis has nations worldwide questioning reactor safety, Southern Colorado’s Pueblo County is taking up a fledgling proposal to build a nuclear power plant — the state’s first since a plant in the northern town of Platteville was decommissioned in 1989.
A need for electricity and jobs is driving the proposal. But three days of recent public hearings underscored mixed public opinion after the Japan disaster — sentiments driven by conflicting desires for jobs, tax revenue, energy diversification and safety.
“Nuclear is the safest form of electric generation there is, and it’d be a shot in the arm for the county and city,” 55-year-old Gerald Campbell, who holds a doctorate in molecular biology, said after listening to opponents at one Pueblo County Commission meeting.
“People are afraid of what they don’t know,” said Aaron Ackerman, a Pueblo native and nuclear engineering student at the Colorado School of Mines. He noted that the containment domes around the nuclear reactors at Japan’s Fukushima Dai-ichi complex weren’t built to withstand the disasters that struck it.
Rancher Abel Rael, 64, opposed the project. “People aren’t going to want to buy vegetables from this area,” he said.
“There are a lot of competing interests here,” said Commissioner Jeff Chostner. “All of that is background for making a very local decision.”
Chostner said he has received about 100 emails from across the country about a proposal by attorney Don Banner to build an energy park featuring nuclear, solar, wind, geothermal and biomass power generation.
Before the Japan crisis, companies in Colorado and other Western states were eagerly preparing for a new nuclear power era. Many still are.
Throughout the West, uranium companies have sought to meet global demand for new nuclear power plants as an alternative to fossil fuels. Thousands of mining claims have been staked on federal lands in Arizona, Colorado, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming.
Energy Fuels Inc., based in Toronto, plans to open a uranium mill in southwest Colorado to feed global demand. And in the northern Colorado town of Nunn, Canada-based Powertech Uranium Corp. is working to establish a uranium mine.
The U.S. has 104 commercial reactors that supply about 20 percent of its electricity. No reactors have been completed in a generation — one is under construction in Tennessee — but the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission is reviewing plans for new reactors, including two proposed by Atlanta-based Southern Co. and its partners near Waynesboro, Ga.
After the Japan crisis, the White House asked the NRC to conduct a safety review of all U.S. reactors.
Pueblo County, with about 159,000 residents, has an unemployment rate of about 11.7 percent. The city of Pueblo once was a national steelmaking powerhouse that later fell on hard times, but it has attracted investment in energy production.
Pueblo is home to a Vestas plant that builds wind turbine towers and employs 400 people. Xcel Energy Inc. operates a coal-fired plant here, and Black Hills Energy plans a natural gas-fired plant.
Democratic U.S. Sen. Mark Udall, D-Colo., has supported building U.S. nuclear power plants, saying safety has improved, nuclear energy doesn’t emit greenhouse gases, and the plants could provide thousands of jobs.
“The tragedy in Japan should give us all pause. It’s a reminder of how important it is to ensure we proceed carefully and cautiously on nuclear energy, especially regarding spent fuel storage,” Udall said in a written statement.
“Still, our need to tackle climate change hasn’t gone away. I’m a realist, and if you want to substitute electricity for petroleum in transportation, nuclear has to be part of the equation,” Udall said. “However, any new nuclear power plants that are built — be they in Colorado or elsewhere in the United States — must involve lots of input from the local community and include robust permitting requirements, safety protocols and oversight.”
Banner, who holds an electrical engineering degree from Purdue University, says his clean energy park would provide high-paying jobs to keep young people in Pueblo instead of losing them to bigger cities for work.
His park would be built not far from the U.S. Army’s Pueblo Chemical Depot, which holds 2,600 tons of mustard agent awaiting destruction.
Banner says he’s only at step one of 100 in getting a $5 billion to $8 billion nuclear power plant built. He has no partners or water rights lined up, saying he doesn’t want to waste time if the county blocks his idea when they vote April 25 on a zoning change. Landowners are willing to sell 37 square miles east of Pueblo for the project, he says.
Chostner said a critical factor he and his two commission colleagues must consider is water for cooling reactors.
In Colorado — and the Arkansas River Basin that encompasses Pueblo — water is an extremely limited resource meticulously managed for farming, ranching, recreation, wildlife and city use. Banner has suggested a river-fed irrigation canal could be a source for a nuclear plant.
Others return to safety, including Tatiana Floka-Cosyleon, who left Kiev, Ukraine, one month before the 1986 Chernobyl disaster.
“Mr. Banner is saying this is not Chernobyl. There is new technology. Japan had new technology, but nobody can give assurance that nothing is going to happen,” she said.
“I want what is best for this community,” Banner said. “If it’s not in the best interest of the community, let’s be done with it.”
– By Catherine Tsai, AP Writer
(Copyright 2011 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)