Colorado had a nuke - once upon a time
Mothballed Fort St. Vrain plant never worked 'the way we wanted'
Saturday, June 7, 2008
The radioactive remnants of Colorado's single attempt to generate power from a nuclear reactor are locked up in dry casks - 244, to be precise.
Buried in layers of concrete and steel designed to withstand a jetliner crash, each cylindrical cask holds six nuclear rods - spent fuel that was used to fire the state's only nuclear power plant, the Fort St. Vrain plant near Platte ville, before faltering mechanics led to its shutdown in 1989.
"We could never get the plant to work the way we wanted to during its decade of operation," said Mark Stutz, spokesman for Xcel Energy, the parent company of Public Service Co. of Colorado, which built the plant.
One problem is that the plant required a special type of nuclear fuel, a blend of uranium and thorium, not used by any of the other 110 nuclear reactors operating in the United States at that time. So Public Service Co. couldn't share the cost to produce the fuel, and it was clear that the cost of the fuel would become prohibitive.
Also, the $200 million plant functioned in fits and starts. The initial testing began in 1972, and the plant's first commercial power was distributed in 1976. But problems erupted soon after - on the non-nuclear side.
The plant, capable of generating 320 megawatts of electricity, experienced unplanned fluctuations forcing prolonged shutdowns and eventually became too costly to operate.
The decommissioning of the plant and removal of 14.7 metric tons of radioactive fuel was completed by 1992.
The fuel - 1,464 hexagonal blocks, each about 31 inches high and 14 inches across - was carted off to a nearby building where the blocks currently are stored in the graphite casks.
Today, the U.S. Department of Energy manages the storage facility, which cost $22 million to build and requires $3 million a year to operate. It's not clear how long the nuclear waste will remain there, surrounded by bucolic farmlands just 35 miles north of Denver.
The deadline to ship out the waste is Jan. 1, 2035. According to a 1996 settlement between the DOE and Colorado, the federal agency has to pay fines of $15,000 per day if the waste doesn't leave Colorado by then.
The federal government is hoping to open up Yucca Mountain in Nevada to store the nation's nuclear waste.
Even if that should happen in the relatively near future, Colorado is down the priority list of shipments from various states. The spent fuel from Fort St. Vrain might not be moved until about 2020, speculated Ted Borst, facility manager of the Fort St. Vrain storage building.
Borst is an employee of CH2M Washington Group Idaho LLC, which has been subcontracted by the DOE to manage the storage facility.
"We have an agreement that the fuel will be moved by 2035," Borst said. "The DOE plans to honor the agreement, but that would depend on the opening date of Yucca Mountain."
chakrabartyg@RockyMountainNews.com or 303-954-2976