An effort in the Minnesota Legislature to lift the state's ban on new nuclear power plants is still alive, but restrictions placed within the legislation raised questions about if anything would really change.
The Minnesota House on Thursday passed a bill that contained an amendment lifting the moratorium on new nuclear plants. The legislation makes clear, however, that a utility building a plant can't pass any construction costs onto its customers until the plant is nearly finished.
Nuclear projects have been criticized for delays and a tendency to go way over budget, so many are worried utility customers could be stuck with much higher rates.
In addition, because of the high costs and delays, many private investment firms have hesitated to finance the building of nuclear plants, so the federal government has had to guarantee loans for companies building plants.
"At best it's a good step in the right direction," said Mike Franklin, who represents the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce on energy issues at the Legislature. "At worst, and we're not sure where in that spectrum this language falls quite yet, it would change our moratorium from a 'can't' to a 'won't.'"
Franklin, whose group wants to see Minnesota's ban lifted, said the restrictions might make it too difficult for a utility to even want to consider building a plant in Minnesota. But he said he's hopeful a conference committee on the bill will consider working on the language to open up the possibility of a nuclear plant being built.
"I'm certainly hopeful that it will be a positive step, but it sort of remains to be seen," Franklin said.
U.S. Reps. Tim Walz, a Democrat, and Erik Paulsen, a Republican, were also hopeful, though they said more work needed to be done. The two have pressured the Legislature to lift the ban.
"Yesterday's amendment, while not perfect, is a step forward," the two wrote in a joint statement. "For decades, the debate over nuclear energy has been stalled, largely along ideological lines. Last night's vote illustrates that we are making progress in finding common ground."
The Legislature is set to adjourn May 17, and lawmakers still have to complete the major task of balancing the budget. A Senate energy committee and the full Senate both voted down measures this year to lift the nuclear moratorium, but the language on that legislation was different from the measure the House approved.
Several environmental groups would prefer the energy conference committee leave out the nuclear amendment, which was brought to the House floor by Rep. Bill Hilty, DFL-Finlayson.
Deanna White, state director of Clean Water Action, said lawmakers should keep in mind that nuclear plants that have been built or are in the planning process have relied heavily on the federal government for financing.
"While the restriction that was put on means that when the plant is being built, ratepayers couldn't be held accountable for overages or for anything until the plant was up and operating, there's still a heavy taxpayer subsidy that goes into building any nuclear plant," White said.
HOUSE VOTES TO KEEP RESTRICTIONS ON COAL
Also Thursday, the Minnesota House voted down attempts to repeal the state's ban on new coal-fired power plants and to repeal restrictions on importing coal-based power.
The restrictions were put in place as part of the Next Generation Energy Act of 2007.