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Energy politics: the nuclear option

Charley Shaw//August 30, 2013//

Energy politics: the nuclear option

Charley Shaw//August 30, 2013//

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Nuclear Plant Upgrade

The state’s two nuclear power plants are located in Monticello, seen above, and on Prairie Island on the Mississippi River. (AP Photo: The Star Tribune, Jim Gehrz)

The growing pressure to reduce carbon emissions is refiguring energy politics from the global down to the local level — a development partially reflected in the energy bill that passed the Minnesota Legislature this year.

As part of this year’s omnibus energy package, a House and Senate commission was directed to come up with a framework for the state to “transition to a renewable energy economy that ends Minnesota’s contribution to greenhouse gases from burning fossil fuels in the next few decades.” While the timeframe for achieving the goal was left vague on purpose, the Legislative Energy Commission is in the process of staffing up. Later this year, it will start bringing utilities and environmental groups to the table in pursuit of its goal.

One major issue on which it will need to achieve consensus is how the state’s many energy-intensive industries will be assured of keeping the lights on when the wind isn’t blowing and the sun isn’t shining. And one of the options for non-carbon-emitting baseload power comes from a source that has split the DFLers who control the governor’s office and the Legislature: nuclear energy.

Some experts on climate change have called attention to the need for increased nuclear energy en route to addressing the climate change problems associated with greenhouse gases. The most renowned of them, retired NASA scientist James Hansen, has been one of the leading voices in climate change science for more than 25 years. He believes the use of nuclear energy needs to be expanded dramatically in the coming decades if the planet’s warming trends are to be stopped.

In an email to Capitol Report this week, Hansen wrote that “if we do not include safe, reliable third and fourth generation nuclear power in our energy mix, we will instead be stuck with unconventional fossil fuels (fracking for gas and oil, tar shale, etc.) and climate change will be out of control.” Hansen believes that development of alternative energy sources such as wind and solar simply won’t be adequate to handle the world’s energy baseload needs.

Energy chairs oppose nuclear expansion

In Minnesota, nuclear energy has long been an issue that’s divided environmental and business interests at the Capitol. But in the past decade, some DFLers have joined in support of removing statutory barriers to building new nuclear power plants. But the leaders of the Legislative Energy Commission are hoping their endeavors will yield solutions that avoid nuclear energy. Senate Environment and Energy Committee Chair John Marty, DFL-Roseville, is an admirer of Hansen’s as a pioneer in the science of climate change. But he parts ways with him on the issue of nuclear energy.

“Hansen is exactly right about the problems of climate change and the seriousness of it,” Marty said. “I think he’s right that nuclear power isn’t adding carbon to the atmosphere. But he’s not factoring in the cost of it.”

Marty’s counterpart in the House, Rep. Melissa Hortman, DFL-Brooklyn Park, said she too is looking for something other than nuclear power as the right sort of clean fuel to power the state.

“Nuclear is kind of the 10-years-ago answer, I think, for supposedly clean energy,” Hortman said. “It just isn’t cost-competitive in today’s environment. What happens is we’ll have a severe problem like in a Chernobyl and everybody will recoil from the industry. And when they are just getting ready to go back, we’ll have another one like Fukushima.”

The 2011 Fukushima nuclear disaster in Japan came at a pivotal point in the nuclear energy debate at the state Capitol. The GOP had taken control of the House and Senate in the previous fall’s election, and a measure to repeal the moratorium on new nuclear plant construction was the fourth bill they introduced when the session started. Sponsored by then Senate Majority Leader Amy Koch, R-Buffalo, the bill passed both the House and Senate and landed in conference committee.

But it instantly disappeared from the agenda when the tsunami swamped the Fukushima plant, destroying reactors there and causing radiation-contaminated water to leak from the plant. Nonetheless, Koch said, pre-Fukushima progress showed that there was significant support from within DFL ranks to contemplate nuclear energy.

“The environmentalists are coming to understand, or at least a portion of them,” Koch said, “that you’ve got to have baseload power, and nuclear is more palatable to them than coal. But you have the ingrained no-nukes attitude that you just can’t have it. That’s the pull in that party. They are very quick to skitter away from the issue and go back to their comfortable position, which is that they are going to be all renewables.”

Renewables favored at Capitol

The push for renewable sources of electricity such as wind and solar has also had an eventful, and markedly more successful, history at the Capitol in the last decade. In 2007, Gov. Tim Pawlenty signed legislation that required 25 percent of the power generated from utilities be produced from renewables by 2025.

But Republican legislators who work on energy issues, including Rep. Michael Beard, R-Shakopee, contend wind and solar won’t provide the baseload power that’s needed for a robust power grid.

“The renewable, or as I call it supplemental, power they are monkeying with now only works as a percentage of our power consumption,” Beard said. “And it only works because we have fantastic machinery in place that’s bought and paid for and it’s cranking out baseload power at 2 or 3 cents a kilowatt hour. You can afford to blend in some intermittent wind and some predictably intermittent solar and do that on a small scale without driving prices too high. The only reason it works is that the baseload power is there.”

Rep. Pat Garofalo, R-Farmington, who is the lead Republican on the House Energy Policy Committee, said natural gas is proving to be the source of choice to keep turbines running in the state and the nation’s power plants. He said there are vast supplies of natural gas in places like western North Dakota, and it burns cleaner than coal.

“I believe we should be pursuing expansion of nuclear power,” said Garofalo. “However, if you read the tea leaves of where the nation is moving, even President Obama’s secretary of energy has been advocating more use of natural gas.”

Minnesota has nuclear power plants on Prairie Island on the Mississippi River and in Monticello in central Minnesota. Nuclear waste is stored in dry casks at the plants, which is a major point of contention in the nuclear energy debate, because the federal government was supposed to remove the waste but has failed to do so.

But chief among the concerns for Hortman and Marty are the economic costs of nuclear power. This summer, their respective committees made a joint trip to the Prairie Island facility. “When I was a kid, they said nuclear power was going to be too cheap to meter,” Marty noted. “Now, when they are talking new plants, they might be 11 or 12 cents per kilowatt hour just for the wholesale cost.”

Hortman acknowledged the need for renewable energy that is constant and reliable. But she said she’s looking at options for the future like expanded hydro power rather than nuclear energy.

“What we need is baseload power. Nuclear is baseload,” Hortman said. “It’s a significant chunk of baseload in Minnesota. You can’t really replace it with wind and solar. You can replace it with some wind. But the other baseload power we will be looking at is hydro. Large hydro and more small hydro, which is baseload power in our part of the country.”

Marty said there are emerging technologies that he hopes will develop, and become cheaper, as time moves on. He’s looking at developing forms of energy storage and finding ways to smooth out the demands that are placed on the energy grid as ways to make the jump to full reliance on renewables.

“You need to have the power on, available all the time to meet the demand,” Marty said. “But part of that is figuring how to make the demand adjust itself.”

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