State senator proposes bringing small nuclear reactors to Routt, Moffat counties

The coal power plant in Hayden is scheduled for closure. State Sen. Bob Rankin is helping lead an effort to investigate whether there's local support for advanced small modular nuclear reactors with the coming closures of the coal power plants in Hayden and Craig.
John F. Russell/Steamboat Pilot & Today

State Sen. Bob Rankin is trying to test the water for small-reactor atomic energy in Northwest Colorado.

Nuclear power doesn’t come without some concerns, but the idea — as preliminary as it is — is also generating some hope Craig and Hayden might be able to stave off a steep economic downturn from the closures of the area’s two coal power plants this decade.

At this point, the discussion of nuclear power in Moffat and Routt counties are so early that it’s barely an idea. Still, Rankin speaks about the possibility optimistically, saying that if it came to fruition, nuclear power could replace the high-paying jobs and property taxes lost with the closures.

“We have to worry about replacing property taxes and high-paying jobs, so that is a strong motivator for looking at this possibility,” Rankin said over the phone Wednesday, July 27, adding that a small-scale nuclear operation “would definitely replace about an equal number of high paying jobs.”

The Republican from Carbondale explained he has been tossing around the idea of bringing small-plant nuclear energy to Northwest Colorado since the end of the legislative session, and Rankin is working with Tim Foster, the newly retired President of Colorado Mesa University.

“He and I are really partners in this endeavor, and our objective is to try to work with Northwest Colorado to investigate whether or not the future of small-scale modular nuclear reactors is an appropriate fit for Craig and perhaps Hayden,” Rankin said.

An advisory committee that includes utility execs, college presidents and academics, and a cross section of state and local officials like Craig City Manager Peter Brixius. The committee plans to meet Tuesday, Aug. 2 in Craig to continue exploring the idea.

“It’s the very first stage,” Rankin said, explaining that they’re focused on public outreach to try to gauge local support right now. Rankin said that if there is enough local support, the next steps would be to pursue more concrete planning, like a detailed feasibility study.

Rankin walked through the idea during a meeting of the Associated Governments of Northwest Colorado in June, and the AGNC group voted to seek a grant from the Department of Energy to help fund a study to gauge local support.

The Associated Governments of Northwest Colorado is a nonprofit group consisting of local officials from Moffat, Mesa, Garfield and Rio Blanco counties. Because of that, Rankin said he thought AGNC was the perfect group to pursue the grant money.

“What’s actually going on in the world of these advanced nuclear reactors, they’re much smaller in capacity,” Rankin said as he talked about some of the latest developments in nuclear technology.

Responding to questions about a possible conversion, Rankin said that it’s not clear exactly how well the existing coal power plants might switch to small nuclear reactors, but at the very least, there’s the site itself and existing power transmission systems to help save costs.

“There are three prototyping situations going on in the United States and others worldwide,” Rankin said of the advanced small modular nuclear reactors. “The question is, is there enough interest, enough momentum, enough buy-in across the country to get enough of these prototypes going that the costs would be driven down.”

Craig faces the loss of hundreds of jobs with the closure of Tri-State’s coal plant in Craig and the mine that feeds it.

In Routt, Moffat and Rio Blanco counties, the coal mining and coal power industry supports nearly 2,900 jobs and represents more than a fifth of the gross domestic product, according to a study from Colorado Mesa University.

In Moffat County, where the study suggests the economic impacts of closing coal plants will be most severe, coal provides 20% of local jobs.

Also, Xcel Energy has scheduled Hayden Station power plant for closure with Unit 2 powering down the end of 2027 and Unit 1 going offline in 2028. Xcel has said that 75 people are employed at the plant.

Driven largely by economics, the discussion about nuclear power in Northwest Colorado’s coal country has not come without some expressing their concerns, including worries about potential seismic activity in the area and how nuclear waste would be stored. The AGNC minutes from June’s meeting say that Sen. Rankin stated small modules are less susceptible to seismic activity.

Additionally, state Rep. Dylan Roberts, who currently represents Hayden in the State House and is running for Colorado Senate, attended AGNC’s June meeting and expressed support for learning more after Rankin’s presentation.

“With something this large, it obviously is a big undertaking,” Roberts said. “I think that we all want to learn more … I’m always one to keep an open mind and have conversations when new ideas come forward.”

For Rankin, it’s an early idea, but it’s one that’s worth exploring.

Support Local Journalism

Support Local Journalism

Readers around Steamboat and Routt County make the Steamboat Pilot & Today’s work possible. Your financial contribution supports our efforts to deliver quality, locally relevant journalism.

Now more than ever, your support is critical to help us keep our community informed about the evolving coronavirus pandemic and the impact it is having locally. Every contribution, however large or small, will make a difference.

Each donation will be used exclusively for the development and creation of increased news coverage.