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Nuke ban repeal moves forward

Charley Shaw//January 12, 2011

Nuke ban repeal moves forward

Charley Shaw//January 12, 2011

Peter Bartz-Gallagher)
"The power providers have said (the nuclear moratorium is not on their radar screen, "House Environment, Energy and Natural Resources Committee chair Denny McNamara acknowledged. But, he added, "If we start doing some of these major projects that are potentially on the horizon, including up on the Iron Range, the need for base load (power generation) is going to change in decades to come." (Staff photo: Peter Bartz-Gallagher)

But industry interest is tepid

Republicans are wasting little time in moving a proposal to lift the 17-year-old state ban on nuclear power plant construction. But while the newly elected Republican majorities in the House and Senate are making a hard charge on repealing the moratorium, the issue is not radiating with much intensity outside the Capitol halls.

On Tuesday, the House File, which was featured in the first 10 bills introduced this session, at No. 9, passed the Environment, Energy and Natural Resources Policy and Finance Committee by a 10-6 vote. Rep. David Dill, DFL-Crane Lake, joined Republicans on the panel in approving the bill. Its next stop is the Commerce Committee.

Minnesota law prohibits the state Public Utilities Commission from issuing certificates of need for nuclear power plant projects. Republicans in particular have charged that the law prohibits policymakers from engaging in substantive talks about the merits of nuclear energy. The small bill, sponsored by Rep. Joyce Peppin, R-Rogers, deletes a single sentence that would undo the moratorium that state lawmakers passed in 1994.

No officials from Minnesota utilities testified in favor of the bill. After the hearing, Rick Evans, a lobbyist for Xcel Energy, said his company, the state’s largest utility, does not expect to need to produce new base load energy in the foreseeable future.

“We agree with folks who say [nuclear] should be an option on the table,” Evans said. “But we don’t have base load need in our 15-year resource plan. It just isn’t something that’s on our top list of priorities.”

Lobbyists from environmental groups like the Minnesota Environmental Partnership testified against the bill. But one lobbyist noted that the push to oppose the bill was relatively restrained compared to past legislative sessions. One reason for the tepid protest is that one of the big drivers of enthusiasm about repealing the moratorium in the past, the federal cap-and-trade bill, is stalled in Congress. Cap-and-trade would set a limit on the greenhouse gas emissions and create a market for polluters to buy credits. Nuclear power plants have an advantage in a cap-and-trade system because they emit steam but not carbon dioxide like coal-burning power plants.

With cap-and-trade essentially dead in Washington, D.C., prospective power plant investors who were once looking for a windfall selling carbon credits are no longer interested in the goings-on in St. Paul.

“There’s still a little wake in the water, but the boat has stopped,” one lobbyist said.

The realities of the present-day energy business have not deterred Republicans from pushing to repeal the moratorium as a way to create jobs someday. House Environment Chairman Denny McNamara, R-Hastings, whose district is near the Prairie Island nuclear power plant and storage site, said his family has several generations of pipefitters. If his 4-year-old granddaughter chooses the same vocation, he said, he hopes she could get work on the construction of a nuclear power plant.

“The power providers have said this is not on their radar screen,” McNamara said. “They’re not looking at the immediate, they’re not looking at the foreseeable future. But we’ve also had an unbelievable downturn in the economy in the last three years, and [there has been] good conservation taking place. We don’t have a need for base load power today. If we start doing some of these major projects that are potentially on the horizon, including up on the Iron Range, the need for base load is going to change in decades to come.”

In an unusual alliance, McNamara’s sentiments are shared by some organized labor groups whose unemployed workers want to see the prospects for future work.

“It’s still a ray of hope for those individuals for whom presently there’s no hope at all,” said Harry Melander, president of the Minnesota State Building and Construction Trades Council.

For decades, business interests have clashed with Democrats over nuclear power. But the battleground over nuclear energy has shifted on the national stage. The issue that had long been depicted as a fight between suits and tree huggers became reshaped in the public sphere after Greenpeace softened its opposition.

Last February, Patrick Moore, the co-founder of Greenpeace, wrote an op-ed in the St. Paul Pioneer Press calling on state lawmakers to repeal the construction ban. President Obama has offered loan guarantees for nuclear power plant construction.

Environmentalists on the national level have started looking more favorably at nuclear energy as concerns over climate change have risen.

In Minnesota, meanwhile, Republicans and some DFLers have embraced ending the construction ban because nuclear power plants are cost-effective to operate. In 2009, the state Senate passed a floor amendment to repeal the moratorium on nuclear power plant construction by a 42-24 vote.  The bill died in the House.

But the rehabilitation of nuclear power in the eyes of Minnesota politicos has also been undercut by bipartisan frustration over the federal government’s failure to find a permanent repository for nuclear waste.

A federal plan to store radioactive waste in Nevada’s Yucca Mountain has been derailed. While politicians on the national stage look for a solution, nuclear waste stored at two sites in Minnesota remains in dry casks. One Republican freshman legislator, Sen. John Howe, was outspoken about the federal government’s failure to deal with the spent nuclear fuel at Prairie Island when he was mayor of Red Wing.

Last year, Sen. Amy Koch’s bill to repeal the moratorium was quashed by an amendment from DFL Sen. John Doll that required a federal waste repository be established before new construction could begin. Doll’s amendment also raised another thorny subject by forbidding utilities from charging ratepayers for the cost of construction until after the plant was producing energy.

A dismayed Koch told the Senate Business committee that Doll’s amendment “gutted” her bill. Doll’s amendment passed the committee 9-6 with one DFLer, Sen. Dan Sparks, voting against it.

Howe’s objections notwithstanding, Republicans’ sweep of both legislative chambers in last November’s elections has changed the dynamics of the repeal effort in the Legislature. The measure is widely expected to make it to Gov. Mark Dayton’s desk. But Dayton has said he has reservations about lifting the ban without a federal repository in place to store the waste.

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