Debate surrounds lift of nuclear power plant ban

Published 7:57 am Thursday, January 13, 2011

Members of a State House committee approved a bill Tuesday that would lift a 17-year-old ban on new nuclear power plants, and local officials say they are willing to take a deeper look at the issue.

“In general, this gives Minnesota an opportunity to look at other options for electric generation,” said Austin Utilities General Manager Mark Nibaur. “This allows power companies and producers of electricity some more options to take a look at competitively providing power and electricity to the public.”

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The bill passed the House Environment, Energy and Natural Resources Committee on a 10-6 vote, with backing from groups including the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce and the Minnesota Building and Construction Trades Council. The 14-line bill would erase a single sentence of state law prohibiting the Public Utilities Commission from allowing construction of new nuclear plants.

Rep. Jeanne Poppe, DFL-Austin, said she has supported the lifting of the ban in the past although it can be a controversial issue.

“There will be some pushback on a lot of environmental progress that’s been made in the last few years,” Poppe said of the bill. “This is one of the less concerning (issues) because I don’t think it’s really going to change things in the future. There might be other environmental issues that people will have much more concern about.”

“Building nuclear plants would be a very costly endeavor,” she added.

However, Nibaur speculated that adding nuclear energy to the power grid could potentially stabilize energy rates throughout the state.

“From the point of having more generation into the (power) grid, that might give Austin another municipal utility to purchase that lower cost-produced generation and that could maybe stabilize rates going forward,” Nibaur said. “It all depends on what the market is running and how that energy is priced within the market from those nuclear power plants.”

Even if the proposal sails through the Legislature, the 1994 moratorium on new nuclear power has support from Democratic Gov. Mark Dayton, who pledged to back the current law as a candidate.

Spokeswoman Katie Tinucci said Dayton hasn’t said whether he would veto the bill.

During the hearing, opposition came from environmental groups and Democrats on the panel who said they’re concerned ratepayers will end up covering the cost of developing a new nuclear power facility.

Minnesota has two existing nuclear power plants near Red Wing and Monticello.

A firsthand perspective came from Prairie Island Indian Community Tribal Council president Victoria Winfrey, whose community lives about 600 yards from Xcel Energy’s nuclear plant near Red Wing. Winfrey said her community opposes any moves to undo the current moratorium and still is waiting for the federal government to find a place to store spent nuclear fuel, including thousands of tons near their homes.

“The amount of hazardous waste that must be stored in our local community will only grow,” Winfrey said.

The bill now heads to the House Commerce and Regulatory Reform Committee.

A Senate version sponsored by Majority Leader Amy Koch awaits its first hearing before an energy, utilities and telecommunications panel.

The AP contributed to this report.