Memories of Colorado’s atomic age

Forward into the past.

As reported in this week’s cover story, University of Denver employees Jeff Corbin and Robert Amme are using the online game Second Life to train workers for a new wave of nuclear power plants expected to be built around the country. If any of these plants, spurred by renewed interest in nuclear energy, are built in Colorado, they’ll hearken back to the state’s brief yet eventful dabbling in atomic-energy.

The grand experiment began in March 1965, when the Public Service Company of Colorado announced it would build the state’s first – and, to this day, only – nuclear power plant at a northern Colorado site near Platteville called Fort St. Vrain. This was a time when nuclear power was still all the rage, recalls Mark Stutz, spokesman for Xcel Energy, which now owns the Public Service Company: "The old saying in nuclear power was ‘un-metered electricity.’ That this will be so cheap we won’t need to monitor electricity. We would just sell it on a floating fee."

Locals had even more reason to be excited about the particular nuclear plant they’d be getting: Fort St. Vrain would be the nation’s first gas-cooled reactor, meaning that its fuel rods, a unique mix of uranium and thorium, would be cooled by helium running through the core, instead of water, like the vast majority of the 100-plus nuclear reactors that had already been built in the country. "It was the safest technology available at the time," says Stutz. "It was viewed with a certain amount of pride. It was a very safe nuclear plant with what many people saw as a leading technology."

It took a while, however, for this newfangled plant to arrive. Construction didn’t begin until 1968, and the facility wasn’t ready to generate commercial electricity until 1976. Such extended timelines are typical of power plants, especially those involving nuclear energy, but when the reactor was finally powered up that December, stuff started going wrong. "One of the problems of Fort St. Vrain was that they were trying to use the technology of the industry, which is water-cooled reactors, on a helium-cooled reactor," says Stutz. Problems flared up with non-nuclear components in the plant, leading to prolonged shut-downs. From 1981 to the late '80s, reports Stutz, the plant operated at 10-percent capacity.

"I will probably get in trouble for saying his, but I remember a period from 1986 to 1988 when you would kind of dread Friday afternoons," says Stutz, who, as the Greeley Tribune's business editor at the time, was charged will filing stories on the dysfunctional plant before heading home for the weekend. "We had a fire at one point, we had to shut down for maintenance, we had numerous issues that always seemed to occur on Friday afternoons when I was trying to get out."

And by that point, the Three Mile Island nuclear reactor accident in Pennsylvania in 1979 and the Chernobyl reactor disaster in the Soviet Union in 1986 had soured public opinion on nuclear power – which meant more bad news for Fort St. Vrain, the only plant of its kind. "After Three Mile Island, every contract for a nuclear power plant [not already in production] in the United States was stopped," says Stutz. "It was thought there would be five, six, seven helium-cooled reactors around the United States, and they would all share in the cost of producing their unique fuel. When all those other plants never came to fruition, it was a death knell for Fort St. Vrain. When they used up all the fuel they had, they were looking at a cost-prohibitive scenario for producing fuel at the plant."

Cracks discovered in non-nuclear elements of the plant in 1989 were the final straw. The reactor was shut down for good and its owners began dismantling the facility – the first decommissioning of a commercial reactor in the country’s history. The nuclear plant was certified decommissioned in September 1996 on time and under budget. The fuel rods, which take decades to cool down completely, are now stored in a $22 million, roughly nine-story tall bunker just north of Fort St. Vrain that's operated by the Department of Energy at a cost of $3 million a year. Eventually the rods are expected to be moved off site to a permanent disposal site – though so far the country hasn’t figured what, exactly, to do with its spent nuclear fuel.

As for Fort St. Vrain plant, it’s still generating electricity for the Public Service Company, though now of a different sort. New gas combustion turbines have been attached to the nuclear plant’s hardly used steam generator, and the rechristened Fort St. Vrain Generating Station is now capable of generating a total of 720 megawatts of electricity. It's the most powerful plant in the Xcel fleet – with far less problems than it had in the past.

"While Fort St. Vrain wasn’t the brightest part of the history of energy in Colorado," says Stutz, "you have to give us some credit for coming with a good solution for what to do with it."

Or in other words, when life handed Fort St. Vrain’s operators a nuclear lemon, they turned around and made some radioactive lemonade. – Joel Warner