Ban aside, time and money may stop new nuclear plants in Minnesota

Power generation inside the plant
The generators and turbines of the nuclear plant work almost nonstop to generate power.
MPR File Photo/Steve Mullis

A state Senate committee will discuss today whether the state should lift its ban on new nuclear power plants.

President Obama threw his support behind nuclear power with an $8 billion federal loan guarantee for the first new nuclear plants in the country in 30 years. Advocates promote nuclear power as a low-carbon alternative to coal and a reliable source of baseload, or continuous, power.

But even if lawmakers agree to lift the nuclear moratorium in Minnesota, it's unlikely any new plants will be built anytime soon.

The nuclear energy industry faces two major obstacles: money, and time.

Xcel Energy is boosting the output at both of its existing nuclear plants in Minnesota. At Prairie Island, the project will cost $600 million. That sounds like a lot of money, but it's dwarfed by the cost of a brand-new plant.

Each new nuclear plant will cost as much as $9 billion, said Marshall Cohen, senior director for state and local government affairs with the Nuclear Energy Institute in Washington.

"There's no question they're expensive to build," said Cohen, who is scheduled to speak to the Senate committee. "But once you get them built, and with this kind of help, you get them built and you turn them on, they're going to run 40, 60, in some cases even 80 years at low cost for ratepayers."

The kind of help Cohen refers to are government loan guarantees and a series of tax breaks the nuclear energy industry has requested.

Wall Street has been unwilling to invest in nuclear plants for years because in the past, many projects went far over-budget, and some ended in default.

The Obama administration subsidies may encourage private investment, but they draw criticism from a range of groups, including opponents of big government like Taxpayers for Common Sense, and traditional environmental groups.

Ellen Vancko, climate change project coordinator for the Union of Concerned Scientists' Nuclear Energy and Climate Change Project, said compared to other energy choices, nuclear power is a bad investment.

"Overall we are seeing the costs of all renewable technologies come down," Vancko said. "And they've come down significantly over the past decade, while we've seen the nuclear costs do nothing but escalate dramatically."

Vanko said taxpayers -- the ultimate source of those loan guarantees -- shouldn't have to bear the cost of delays and possible defaults.

Obama wants to triple the dollars available for loan guarantees, which would cover perhaps seven plants. There are about two dozen plants being proposed around the country with none in Minnesota.

In Minnesota, utilities are concentrating on meeting the state's renewable energy mandate. By 2025, they need to have a quarter of their electricity coming from renewable sources.

The four biggest utilities in Minnesota support lifting the ban, but they don't have any immediate plans to build a plant.

It takes a long time to build nuclear plants. Two reactors under construction in Europe are struggling with technical and safety problems, and they're far behind schedule.

That issue of time is one reason why Harry Melander, president of the Minnesota Building and Construction Trades Council, wants to remove Minnesota's ban.

"The challenge we have is because of the length of time it takes to construct a nuclear plant, anywhere from eight to 10 years, we need to at least have the conversation," Melander said.

Critics say it takes so long to build a nuclear plant that the technology is not the best way to combat climate change.

The industry is designing a new generation of plants. The idea is that standardized plants with nearly identical designs would be cheaper to build and safer to operate.

But the Nuclear Regulatory Commission keeps asking questions about safety systems in the new designs, so they're behind schedule too.

Opponents of nuclear power continue to raise questions about its safety. In Vermont, the senate recently voted to close the Vermont Yankee plant, built in 1972, because of concerns about leaks of radioactive tritium and other problems.

Some plants have not completed security upgrades required after the World Trade Center terrorist attacks in 2001. Xcel Energy says its two Minnesota plants are "very secure" and the company "makes changes as necessary to stay current with the ever-changing threat."

The NRC recently granted Xcel an extra 15 months to complete required safety measures at the Prairie Island and Monticello plants.

Meanwhile, the question of what to do with nuclear waste remains unanswered.

Nevertheless, advocates say nuclear power should at least be an option in Minnesota.

The Senate Energy committee could vote on a repeal of the ban this week. Last year, a similar bill passed on the Senate floor, but failed by a few votes in the House.

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