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Can Minnesota talk about new nuclear power while there’s still a ban?

Monticello nuclear plant
Xcel Energy's Monticello Nuclear Generating Plant photographed Tuesday, June 19, 2012. (Jennifer Simonson | MPR News file 2012)

State Senate Republicans and Democrats are at odds over whether nuclear energy can be part of the conversation about Minnesota's energy future, if the state maintains its ban on building new nuclear power plants.

The Senate Energy and Utilities Finance and Policy committee discussed a bill Thursday that would lift the state's long-standing ban on new nuclear facilities.

"We're not going to start digging shovels of dirt and start building anything," said Sen. David Osmek, R-Mound, the bill's sponsor who also chairs the committee. "This is to make sure we have the ability to keep this as part of our energy mix, and I think it's a wise thing to do."

Osmek said nuclear needs to be allowed back into the discussion as policymakers look for ways to reduce Minnesota's carbon emissions. Nuclear provides carbon-free electricity, and Gov. Tim Walz said earlier this week that it could be part of his plan to require 100 percent carbon-free electricity by 2050.

Minnesota has two nuclear plants in operation — Prairie Island and Monticello, both owned by Xcel Energy. Both have licenses that expire in the 2030s.

The Sierra Club and the Prairie Island Indian Community submitted testimony against lifting the ban.

"Nuclear continues to pose grave risks, is expensive for ratepayers, impacts communities already disproportionately affected by environmental problems and our clean water resources and leaves an incredible burden of toxic pollution for future generations," said Margaret Levin, state director of the Sierra Club North Star Chapter.

Nuclear power plants generate radioactive waste, and to date, no permanent solution has been identified to deal with the waste, said Shelley Buck, tribal council president for the Prairie Island Indian Community.

"We are the closest community in the country to a nuclear power plant. Every day we bear the burden of our nation's failed nuclear waste disposal policy," Buck wrote in a letter to lawmakers.

Lawmakers from both parties acknowledged the community's concerns, but Sen. Eric Pratt, R-Prior Lake, said there's no harm in making nuclear an option in Minnesota.

"Lifting this ban is the only way we're going to have this conversation to look at all carbon-free sources of energy, if that's what's important to us," he said.

But Sen. John Marty, DFL-Roseville, said the ban doesn't prevent lawmakers and others from talking about nuclear.

"I'd vote for this bill, if voting for this bill meant we would find a solution to nuclear waste," he said. "I think the bill is symbolic more than anything else. I don't think it's going to change anything in the debate here."

Osmek's nuclear energy bill and another bill that would remove size limits for hydroelectricity projects to be considered "renewable" were both laid over for possible inclusion in an omnibus bill.

The House Energy Climate Finance and Policy Division will hear Walz's clean energy proposal on Tuesday.

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