Could the disaster in Japan reshape Colorado’s energy future?

Although Colorado is far from the epicenter of the Japanese earthquake, some of her energy issues are near the center of a newly energized debate on nuclear power.

As the Colorado Independent put it in a blunt headline, “Japan disaster may have chilling effect on nuclear revival, new Colorado uranium boom.”

The growing disaster, said the Independent, has sparked unpleasant memories of the Chernobyl meltdown in 1986, and the Three Mile Island incident in Pennsylvania in 1979, and sent “shockwaves through the nuclear power industry.”

At present, the “nuclear revival” in Colorado consists of plans to build the Piñon Ridge Uranium Mill in western Montrose County, open an in-situ uranium mining operation proposed near Fort Collins and build Colorado’s only operating nuclear power plant in an energy park near Pueblo.

The first two of these have generated strong opposition from conservationists, environmentalists, health groups and other opponents of uranium mining and processing.

As a result of the opposition, the Piñon Ridge mill is blocked by a lawsuit, while the in-situ mine has had its Environmental Protection Agency permit pulled.

Despite setbacks, however, both companies involved have expressed confidence that their plans will be approved. But that was before the disaster in Japan.

Last July, the Pueblo County Commissioners approved plans for an energy park that includes a 3,000-watt nuclear power plant.

Public hearings scheduled in Pueblo for this week are expected to be larger than anticipated because of the crisis in Japan. The safety of a nuclear facility in their backyard is likely to dominate questions raised by the audience.

Though some of the negative reactions to nuclear power may be more emotional than rational, they are nevertheless capable of fueling a powerful backlash against almost anything connected to the nuclear industry.

As The New York Times reported, the accident in Japan “feeds into a resurgence of doubts about nuclear energy’s safety — even as it has gained credence as a source of clean energy in a time of mounting concern about the environmental and public health tolls of fossil fuels.”

In addition to the examples of Chernobyl and Three Mile Island, Colorado has its own history of past environmental disasters from uranium mining and milling to inspire resistance to a renewed uranium industry.

But the future of the nuclear industry in Colorado may be determined by decisions made far from the affected communities.

Extended investigations of the nuclear meltdowns in Japan are likely to halt approvals of new nuclear plants in the United States for months, if not years.

Regardless of local support, plants like the one proposed in Pueblo could be put on hold for the foreseeable future while new safety rules are approved.

Meantime, European and Asian countries like Switzerland, Germany, Taiwan and South Korea are reviewing their nuclear power programs and putting some plans for new or up-graded plants on hold. Many of these countries are seeking to reduce their reliance on nuclear power.

In Washington, Sen. Joe Lieberman, independent of Connecticut, chairman of the Senate Homeland Security Committee and a “big supporter of nuclear energy,” said the United States should “put the brakes on” new nuclear power plants “until we absorb what has happened in Japan.”

Even the White House struck a cautious note, re-affirming its commitment to nuclear energy, but committing the administration to learning from Japan, and to “ensuring that nuclear energy is produced safely and responsibly here in the U.S.”

If these countries follow through on plans to reduce dependence on nuclear power, the market for “yellowcake” produced by mills like the one proposed for Montrose County, and the ore mined in northern Colorado, may face a shrinking market, at least for a few years. But, if predictions of a slowdown in nuclear development are right, Colorado may gain more than it loses.

A slowing demand for nuclear power should increase the demand for clean renewable energy like wind and solar.

Thanks to our new energy economy, Colorado is uniquely situated to take advantage of a shift from nuclear to renewable energy. The sun, wind and cleaner-burning natural gas will assure Colorado’s energy future even without a “nuclear revival.”

Bill Grant lives in Grand Junction. He can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).


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