Minn. Senate lifts ban on new nuclear plants

Published 10:50 am Thursday, February 3, 2011

For the second time in three years, the Minnesota Senate has voted to lift a moratorium on new nuclear power plants.

The Republican-controlled Senate, with strong Democratic support, voted 50-14 to repeal a 1994 law preventing state regulators from issuing permits for new nuclear plants. The ban had been imposed as part of a controversial deal to allow high-level nuclear waste to be stored in the state.

Sponsored by Senate Majority Leader Amy Koch, R-Buffalo, the measure does not clear the way for new plants to be built; rather, it allows state regulators to consider the option. Calling nuclear power a reliable and inexpensive source of energy, Koch said it would give the state more flexibility in planning future energy growth and eventually would generate more jobs.

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“I believe very strongly that Minnesota should not move into the future with one hand tied behind its back, and currently, that is what we are doing,” Koch said.

Opponents, however, remained concerned about long-term storage of nuclear waste, the risk of taxpayers or ratepayers getting stuck with high development costs, and the bill’s impact on a growing renewable energy industry. They proposed five amendments — including ratepayer protections and a local voice in siting plants and storage facilities — but were rebuffed each time.

They also questioned the timing of the bill, one of the first to clear the Senate this session.

“This is the wrong bill at the wrong time,” said Sen. Ellen Anderson, DFL-St. Paul, a longtime supporter of retaining the nuclear ban.

With the state struggling to get out of a big budget hole, she called the legislation a diversion. “We need jobs now,” Anderson said. “We don’t need jobs 20 years from now.”

Because no utilities are seeking permission for a plant or even expressing a need for one, Sen. Scott Dibble, DFL-Minneapolis, said he was puzzled by Republican insistence on repealing the moratorium.

Because the measure purported simply to open the door to nuclear power, it had plenty of support.

“This is a good bill,” Sen. Michael Jungbauer, R-East Bethel, said. “It opens up the discussion.”

A similar bill is moving through House committees and is expected to pass later this session. But it gets less certain after that.

Democratic Gov. Mark Dayton has opposed new nuclear power because there’s still no strategy to deal with the waste generated at the state’s two plants in Red Wing and Monticello. The Prairie Island plant at Red Wing has 29 above-ground dry casks filled with nuclear waste and the Monticello plant has 10 filled casks. With plans for a national storage repository on hold, there is no clear destination for it.

In Wednesday’s debate, Republicans repeatedly cited bipartisan support from such figures as Democratic U.S. Rep. Tim Walz of Minnesota’s 1st District. Several times they even cited President Barack Obama, who called for a “new generation of safe, clean nuclear power plants” in his State of the Union Address last week.

Two years ago, the state Senate voted to lift the nuclear ban by adding an amendment to a larger energy bill. That approach, however, failed in the House.