State again considers ending ban on new nuclear plants

The Prairie Island power facility
The Prairie Island nuclear plant.
MPR File Photo/Steve Mullis

An effort to build new nuclear power plants has support from people who disagree on almost everything else: Republicans and Democratic President Barack Obama.

While many Democrats agree with Obama that nuclear should help the country meet future energy needs, so far not enough Democrats in Minnesota have been convinced that that belief means the state's ban on new nuclear power plants should be lifted.

Past efforts to change the law have failed, but some are hoping the extra pressure that comes in an election year could help find the votes for it to pass this year.

"There's a lot of people who are moving on this and who are working on some of these members who are kind of on the fence," said state Rep. Joyce Peppin, a Republican from Rogers who has pushed for repealing the ban.

The Minnesota Chamber of Commerce, the Minnesota Building and Construction Trades Council and a group called Sensible Energy Solutions for Minnesota are all arguing that Minnesota should lift the ban so that the state is in a better position to consider nuclear in the future.

A Senate energy committee is meeting Tuesday to hear testimony on the issue, and it could vote to lift the ban on Thursday. The issue isn't expected to get a House hearing, but it could come up for a vote on the floor later in the session.

Last year, a move to lift the ban easily passed in the Senate but failed 60-72 in the House despite more than a dozen DFL members who voted for the measure.

Taking absences into account, five or six House members would need to change their votes for it to pass this year.

Gov. Tim Pawlenty has said he supports lifting the ban, but it's his last chance to sign a bill before a new governor gets elected in November.

Related: Candidates for governor split over lifting nuclear plant ban

Tom Emmer and Marty Seifert, the Republican front-runners in the GOP governor's race, both support lifting the ban. The DFL candidates are split on the issue.

"It's becoming a very bipartisan issue," Peppin said. "It's becoming the case that only the very extreme liberals aren't supporting this."

Some DFL House members who opposed lifting the ban know they may get extra calls this year.

"There's a lot of pressure to do just the sort of politically pragmatic thing," said state Rep. Gail Kulick Jackson, DFL-Milaca. "Sometimes I have to do what's pragmatic. But there are other times when I am so sure that I am doing the principled thing that I take the harder road."

For now, Jackson said she will continue opposing the bill to repeal the ban because she's concerned about the high costs of building a plant and wants to protect taxpayers.

So far, no legislators who opposed lifting the ban have said publicly that they will change their votes this time around.

Sen. Ellen Anderson, a Democrat from St. Paul who voted to put the ban in place in 1994, said it would be unfortunate if this year's debate about nuclear power gets politically ugly, but she won't be surprised if it does.

"It's hard to make thoughtful, reasonable choices when you're looking at being smeared in a political campaign," Anderson said. "The energy policy in our state is too important to be a partisan political issue."

Whether those in favor of lifting the ban publicly question Minnesota Democrats for going against Obama could depend on public opinion in the state. While national polls have shown more than half of Americans support nuclear power, there's been no recent scientific poll on the issue here.

When the ban passed in 1994, nuclear power was a top issue because Xcel Energy was trying to get permission to store nuclear waste on site at the Prairie Island plant in Red Wing. The debate attracted protesters at the State Capitol.

Former DFL Senate Majority Leader Roger Moe said it was the most contentious issue he dealt with in his 32 years in office.

"It wasn't partisan, it was just out-and-out philosophic differences that cut across party lines, and gender and geography," Moe said. "It was a very heated, emotional, prolonged discussion and debate."

Moe, who supported the original ban, said the debate has changed as the country looks to generate power without emitting carbon dioxide. He stopped short of saying whether he would vote to repeal it now, saying lawmakers will have to decide that for themselves.

"As is the case with all public policy, there's going to be trade-offs," he said.

Eleven other states also ban the construction of new nuclear plants, at least until the federal government finds a more permanent solution for the waste. While Obama has appointed a commission to address the issue, some state lawmakers in Minnesota list waste as one of the main reasons to keep the moratorium on new plants.

The other main concern is the high cost of building a new nuclear plant. The loan guarantees Obama offered a new plant in Georgia are worth more than $8 billion.

Rep. Jeremy Kalin, DFL-North Branch, said it's not in Minnesota's best interest to be the first in line for a new generation of nuclear plants that still face issues, especially while the state is still expanding renewable energy use.

"Let's let others do the trial and error and we'll get on board when things are ready to rock and roll," said Kalin, who wants Minnesota to keep the ban for now.

But those who support the repeal argue that any delay will put Minnesota in a weak position later when the state needs reliable energy sources.

"We need to have backup, baseload sources of power, and it's naive to think that we could get by without either producing more coal plants or nuclear power plants," Peppin said.

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