The Democrat-controlled Senate Transportation and Energy committee killed its first pro-nuclear energy bill of the session recently, voting 5-2 along party lines to table Senate Bill 23-079 indefinitely.
The bill, admittedly modest in its ambitions, would have simply classified nuclear power as a clean energy source under state statute. Despite testimony supporting the bill outnumbering opposing comments nearly 12-1, Democratic Senators Faith Winter, Kevin Priola, Lisa Cutter, Sonya Jaquez Lewis, and Tony Exum voted in lockstep to seal its fate.
“You’re right, everything I’ve read says that up to 20 percent of the grid in the near term will require nuclear,” Committee Vice Chair Kevin Priola said to Republican bill sponsor Larry Liston in his concluding remarks. “But the problem I have is with putting it in a definition. It doesn’t really even change anything, especially at the state level. The technology is getting better and will be a part of getting to net-zero, so I do agree with that. But I’ll be a no.”
You’d be forgiven for finding it hard to square those remarks, ostensibly in support of nuclear’s role in a clean future, with the outcome of the vote.
Partisanship at play
It should come as no surprise that the rationale for opposing this bill lacks coherence. There simply isn’t a justifiable reason for rejecting it beyond pure partisanship, recalcitrant 1970s-era nuclear phobia, or a bit of both. One look around at the modern political landscape, even among environmentalists, and you’ll find widespread support for nuclear energy.
The Biden administration supports nuclear power, as indicated by his clean energy platform. So does Biden’s Secretary of Energy, who says it “is going to play a critical role in America’s clean energy future.”
“Alongside renewables, energy efficiency and other innovative technologies, nuclear can make a significant contribution to achieving sustainable energy goals and enhancing energy security,” says Faith Birol, Executive Director of the IEA.
And yet the Democrats in the Colorado legislature decided to buck that consensus and kill a modest nuclear energy bill for the second year in a row. I’m sure a handful of Democratic committee members must know better than all those other folks.
None of this is to say that having good faith concerns with nuclear energy is impossible. There are certainly conversations to be had about plant construction time and cost. Even concerns about waste and safety, however overstated and easily manageable they may be, are perfectly legitimate.
But it’s worth considering just how limited in nature SB-079 was. It did not mandate that the state suddenly pick a favorite in nuclear energy. It did not prescribe an immediate build-out of a new reactor fleet. It wouldn’t have even committed the state to ever building nuclear plants at all.
It simply would have amended the state’s current statutory definition of “clean energy,” which at present farcically excludes nuclear by name alongside fossil fuels, to include the country’s largest single source of carbon-free electricity generation.
That would allow an enterprising electricity provider, be it a utility, co-op, or independent power producer, to evaluate a suite of technologies on an even playing field when deciding which course to take in meeting Colorado’s decarbonization goals.
The status quo is absurd
As it stands now, if a utility were to consider pursuing nuclear generation, it would not be credited with using a “qualifying resource” to meet the state’s carbon goals, a de facto penalty for producing clean energy under the state’s renewable portfolio standard. Meanwhile, despite necessitating fossil fuel backup when the weather doesn’t cooperate, wind and solar get to continue earning renewable energy credits while locking in gas-fired generation for the foreseeable future.
Nuclear energy is a carbon-free, low marginal cost source of electricity capable of operating 24 hours a day, seven days a week. No backup fossil fuels are required. It doesn’t skip a beat on an overcast day or when the wind ceases to blow, and it can even be used to produce process heat for hard-to-decarbonize sectors of the economy, such as heavy industry.
It is among the safest and lowest emitting technologies humanity has ever produced on a lifecycle basis, on par with wind and solar. It is the most land-efficient energy source per unit of electricity generated, requiring 18 to 27 times less land than a utility-scale solar installation, which translates to fewer land use conflicts and NIMBY opposition, as well as a boon for conservation and species biodiversity that more land-extensive energy resources would otherwise disrupt.
The state has now erred two sessions in a row when presented with an opportunity to examine nuclear energy seriously. Meanwhile, surrounding states and allied countries are poised to reap the benefits of a clean energy future that includes advanced nuclear power.
If Colorado policymakers wish to avoid being left behind on the clean energy transition, they would do well to correct their irrational aversion to giving nuclear producers a chance to contribute to a clean, reliable future.
Jake Fogleman in an energy policy researcher at the Independence Institute, a free market think tank in Denver.
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