Minnesota Now with Cathy Wurzer

Why nuclear energy is a political minefield in Minnesota

Electrical lines and towers frame a power plant
The Xcel Energy nuclear generating plant near Monticello, Minn., is pictured on March 24.
Ben Hovland | MPR News

Governor Tim Walz signed a bill into law this year that will require Minnesota’s electricity to be 55 percent renewable by 2035, and totally carbon-free by 2040, due to concerns over climate change. 

What exactly that will look like is still up in the air. Under the law, renewable energy can be generated through means like solar panels, wind farms, water and burning garbage or wood. 

Even though nuclear energy is carbon-free, it’s not considered renewable under the new law. 

Nuclear energy is controversial in Minnesota and across the country. A new series from Minnesota news startup Project Optimist is diving into all the gray areas. The series is called “Nuclear at a Crossroads.” 

Series author R.C. Drews and editor Nora Hertel joined Minnesota Now to talk about it.

 Use the audio player above to listen to the full conversation.

Subscribe to the Minnesota Now podcast on Apple PodcastsGoogle PodcastsSpotify or wherever you get your podcasts.  

We attempt to make transcripts for Minnesota Now available the next business day after a broadcast. When ready they will appear here. 

Audio transcript

CATHARINE RICHERT: Governor Tim Walz signed a bill into law this year that will require Minnesota's electricity to be 55% renewable by 2035 and totally carbon free by 2040. That's all over concerns regarding climate change. What exactly that will all look like, though, is still up in the air.

Under the law, renewable energy can be generated through solar panels, wind farms, water, and burning garbage or wood. Even though nuclear energy is carbon free, it's not considered renewable under the new law. Nuclear energy is controversial in Minnesota and across the country.

A new series from Minnesota news startup Project Optimist is diving into all of those gray areas. The series is called Nuclear at a Crossroads. And we have author RC Drews and editor Nora Hertel on the line to talk about it. Welcome to Minnesota Now.

RC DREWS: Good afternoon, Catharine.

NORA HERTEL: Thank you so much for having us.

CATHARINE RICHERT: We're happy to have you. So, RC, I'll start with you. What interested you in this topic?

RC DREWS: Well, I think it's a fascinating thing. And one of the stories referred to nuclear power as the black sheep of the carbon-free family. And when you think about the roughly 100-year history that we have in this country and in this world exploring nuclear, what's fascinating to me is that we haven't really come up with a cohesive answer about how we feel about it, whether or not it's part of the plan for it.

And every country is making their own choice. And we're seeing that play out in Minnesota now in light of this this 2040 mandate.

CATHARINE RICHERT: So Minnesota has placed a moratorium on the construction of new nuclear power plants and did so nearly 30 years ago now. And nuclear energy has had its fair share of incidents, including what we've been hearing about in the news more recently, water contamination at the Monticello plant. Nora, can you just take us through briefly some of the history of nuclear energy?

NORA HERTEL: Yeah, well, it's hard to talk about nuclear power without acknowledging the major global disasters that taint how we think about it. We had an incident in the United States a couple of decades ago at Three Mile island.

There was Fukushima. There was an issue when there was a tidal wave that flooded the reactor there and caused a lot of problems. And only recently have they started releasing that water back into the Pacific. So there was a big to-do several months ago with the prime minister of Japan eating fish that was touched by that water.

And then, of course, Chernobyl, which everybody thinks about that when we think about nuclear power. And then it stays fresh when there are things like the miniseries that came out a couple of years ago that gave a different look at what happened there.

And then, locally, you mentioned there was the issue with the contaminated water in Monticello. There was also a shutdown of the reactor at Prairie Island this year as well. So both of the plants in the state had issues. And there weren't any issues with safety this year. But, still, it gets to be a big deal when it stirs up that kind of anxiety around there, even though, generally speaking, nuclear power is pretty safe compared to some of the other sources out there.

CATHARINE RICHERT: So, RC, in your reporting, what has it told you? Is nuclear energy safe?

RC DREWS: It's a fascinating question. And I don't know that there is a solid answer to it. In fact, I think, largely, we need hundreds of years, maybe even thousands of years to fully answer that question. And maybe that's divisive to say. But the reality is so much of what we're dealing with here, the timescales are just beyond anything else that we typically see.

When we deal with a new technology, often, within 50 years, we might have a sense of its consequences. But with nuclear, we're talking about irradiated waste or spent fuel that could have radioactive half-lives over 100,000 years. And we don't know what that means. We don't really have a scope for that. We don't have recorded history going that far back to imagine the future history going that far forward.

And so I think that what the experience of working on this story for the last six months has shown me is just the intricacies of the question of nuclear, the challenges that it presents, and also the potential that it presents. One of the things that we talked about is that a nuclear fuel pellet the size of the first joint of your pointer finger contains the stored energy capacity of a ton of coal. And that's fairly remarkable.

What's also fairly remarkable, though, is the challenges that come with it. And trying to come up with the best solutions to those challenges has been daunting.

CATHARINE RICHERT: So I'm based in Rochester. And I've been to the Prairie Island Indian Community quite a number of times. And it's really hard to underscore just how close the nuclear power plant there is to that community.

You went out there, too, RC, and you spoke with some of the folks who live there. The tribe is very close to that plant. And in 1979, radioactive materials were released into the air there, and they were never notified. Is there an equity issue here when we talk about more experimental forms of energy?

RC DREWS: Well, I think it's an important part of the conversation. And when you look at Canada and the work that they've been doing for the last 20 years, similarly dealing with indigenous rights and making sure that communities that are hosting these facilities are being recognized and being heard, that their input is being taken as a consideration towards further development as well as continued operation.

The Minnesota plants were in a difficult situation when they were built in the 1970s. The understanding was that the national government was going to provide-- the federal government was going to provide a waste disposal site for nuclear at Yucca Mountain. And, ultimately, that project has failed to develop in the last five decades since.

And so the utilities were put in a position where they have this spent waste that's been sitting in cooling pools. And they're running out of space to store it on site. Many utilities across the country made the decision to shutter their nuclear plants because they didn't have a solution for the waste.

In Minnesota, it became a controversy because there was the decision ultimately to store that waste in casks on site at Prairie Island. But that also helped precipitate the 1994 moratorium, which has prevented the establishment of any other nuclear in the state. Incidentally, it's also interesting that that release that you mentioned in 1979, which Northern States Power, which is today Xcel Energy, referred to as a puff, a puff for about 30 minutes, I believe. It was reported nationally in the New York Times.

But that happened just a few months after the Chernobyl incident-- or sorry-- not Chernobyl, but the Three Mile Island incident. So it was a time where Americans were looking at nuclear power with some some skepticism.

CATHARINE RICHERT: Now, RC, quickly, you mentioned the moratorium. But there are some lawmakers who are at least hoping to make some exceptions to it, if not repeal it, right?

RC DREWS: That's correct. And what's interesting is there is support on both sides. And there historically has been. It's not specifically a party line issue. In fact, in 2009, Senator Waltz at the time, now Governor Waltz, was a supporter of repealing the moratorium on nuclear. And even to this day, he provided a comment to one of our articles saying that he would at least support studies into the future of nuclear in Minnesota.

But we're seeing in the Senate, specifically the Energy, Utilities, Environmental Committee, both Senator Nick Frentz, DFL, and the chair of that of that commission as well as Senator Andrew Matthews, who is the minority chair on that, both are in support of some adjustment to the moratorium or some study into future nuclear technology. But there's further divide within the parties themselves and on both sides.

CATHARINE RICHERT: Yeah, we're getting close to the end of our chat here. But, Nora, I'm wondering, do you think the general public really understands nuclear energy? And is there something we tend to misunderstand about the way that it works?

NORA HERTEL: I think that people actually do have a pretty good understanding of it, that there's a risk. And maybe there's some outsized fear out there. But on the other hand, as we talk more and more about clean energy and what is the future of what's powering our electricity in the future, I think a lot of people are savvy about what options are out there.

Yeah, I think public opinion about nuclear power is changing. There was a study out this year from the Pew Research survey. And they found that opinion of nuclear power is improving. So people are thinking about it. Their opinions are evolving.

CATHARINE RICHERT: So in our last few seconds here, Nora, you have a virtual dialogue about the topic tomorrow. Can you share more about it and how people can sign up?

NORA HERTEL: Yes, thank you so much. Yeah, so we have a dialogue. It's taking place tomorrow evening from 5:00 to 7:00 PM. RC will be there to give a few remarks about the series. And then we're going to guide a few conversations.

So we'll break up the group into smaller groups. And we'll talk about some of those complexities and the values that people hold that influence their opinions about nuclear power. We do these dialogues on various topics. And nuclear power is a really good one for that because there's a lot of gray area and nuance. And we love to get into that. So people can--

CATHARINE RICHERT: Well, thank you-- sorry, we have to wrap it up here. Project Optimist editor Nora Hertel and Fergus Falls-based journalist RC Drews. You can find their series at optimist.com.

Download transcript (PDF)

Transcription services provided by 3Play Media.