Fresh off passing a bill that steers electric utilities toward a carbon-free grid by 2040, DFLers who control the Minnesota Senate on Wednesday signaled they might approve legislation to study the use of emerging nuclear technology in the state to meet clean energy goals.
The research could be something of an olive branch from Democrats to minority Republicans, who lambasted the DFL for refusing to lift a ban on new nuclear plants in the landmark electricity regulations signed by Gov. Tim Walz on Tuesday. GOP lawmakers have argued the 100% measure will lead to higher bills and even rolling blackouts without steady carbon-free power like nuclear.
“This is an effort to try to have all the tools in the toolbox as we’re moving forward and retiring many forms of baseload generation,” said Sen. Andrew Mathews, R-Princeton, during a hearing in the Senate’s Energy, Utilities, Environment and Climate Committee on Wednesday. “Nuclear will be one of the few remaining that will provide consistent, strong, reliable baseload generation and in a completely carbon-free manner. So it makes sense to have that studied.”
Mathews is sponsoring a bill that would commission research to look at the potential costs, benefits and impacts of “advanced nuclear technology reactor power generation” on things like power bills, clean energy goals, local jobs, the environment and more. At a price of $300,000, the study would also look into the economics of replacing coal-fired boilers with advanced nuclear reactors, avoiding costs of closing coal plants.
Minnesota only has two nuclear power plants, both owned by Xcel Energy. One is in Red Wing and one is in Monticello. And those plants will play a major role in Xcel’s plans to reach carbon-free energy by 2040, because they made up nearly a third of the company’s 2021 energy mix in the Upper Midwest. But there is a moratorium on new plants, and no other electric utility in Minnesota has the luxury of such a large amount of nuclear power.
Existing nuclear power counts toward carbon-free goals under the new 100% standard. But it does not count as renewable power, and electric utilities must be 55% renewable by 2035 under the new law.
The possibility of new traditional, large nuclear plants appears slim. In addition to the moratorium, utilities often consider them to be outdated or too expensive to build and operate, particularly under current federal regulations. They’re also fiercely opposed by many Democrats and tribal leaders out of concern for the environmental impacts of waste storage. Xcel pays hefty fees to the state for storing its nuclear waste in Minnesota, some directly next to the Prairie Island Indian Community.
Still, emerging technology has drawn the interest of Republicans and perhaps a growing contingent of Democrats.
That includes the possibility of smaller reactors, which generate less energy but supporters hope will be cheap enough to build and run across the country. In January, federal regulators approved the design for what would be the country’s first small “modular” nuclear reactor in Idaho. It could be fully in service as a demonstration project by 2030.
A presentation given to Senate lawmakers on Monday by the Nuclear Innovation Alliance says the advanced nuclear energy projects might be used more as a flexible and “dispatchable” energy source, able to be called upon to fill energy needs when there is a spike in demand during a cold snap or when wind and solar are producing less.
Mathews’ bill drew wide support from utilities, including Xcel Energy, Duluth-based Minnesota Power, the large cooperative Great River Energy and the Minnesota Rural Electric Association.
“As we look to future technology, the addition of advanced nuclear energy resources has the potential to provide similar dispatchable energy to our portfolio,” said Pamela Gorman Prochaska, director of nuclear regulatory policy and strategy for Xcel Energy, in a letter to the committee.
Trades unions including the Minnesota Building and Constructions Trades Council and the International Union of Operating Engineers Local 49 are also backing the study. Kevin Pranis, marketing manager for LIUNA Minnesota & North Dakota, testified that advanced nuclear could be an alternative to natural gas “peaking” plants used when the wind isn’t blowing and the sun isn’t shining, especially since battery technology to store renewable energy isn’t ready yet and those batteries rely on a large amount of critical minerals.
“We can’t afford to bet the farm on a single technology to provide that sort of backup,” Pranis said. “We understand that the nuclear conversation is a hard and uncomfortable one for some folks. We sympathize with that. But what we would say is that everyone is being asked to do hard and uncomfortable things to solve the climate crisis. Our members are doing hard and uncomfortable things in sacrificing jobs in Senator Mathews’ district and other places in coal plants.”
The Minnesota Chamber of Commerce supports the research, as do some environmental advocacy groups including the nonprofit Fresh Energy.
But leaders from the Prairie Island tribe wrote in a letter that the study bill doesn’t adequately address the production and storage of nuclear waste, and said they are concerned Prairie Island would be the “de facto storage site” for any new nuclear plants.
“This would mean that the nuclear waste deposited 700 yards from our community would grow at a much faster rate,” the letter says, which is signed by tribal president Johnny Johnson and four other Prairie Island officials. “In short, we are interested in less nuclear waste next to our community, not more.”
One change to the bill on Wednesday proposed by Mathews would require the study of technology and methods to minimize environmental impacts of nuclear waste and the cost of managing it.
In advocating for more changes to the bill, Sen. Jen McEwen, DFL-Duluth, said she supports studying nuclear power but wants the study to also include research on the health impacts of nuclear storage in light of the tribal concerns.
Last year, the state Senate passed a similar study bill when the chamber was controlled by Republicans. Though it drew some DFL support, a deal struck with the Democratic-led House did not include the research.
During debate this year over the 100% carbon-free standard, Republican efforts to include a nuclear study or a measure to lift the moratorium were shot down by majority Democrats.
Still, Sen. Nick Frentz, a North Mankato DFLer who chairs the Senate’s energy committee, said Wednesday that a study is appropriate given “our position has been that decarbonizing is our top priority.”
“I realize the waste issue has not been solved, but I think we should be studying it,” Frentz said. “And I think if there is a solution to the waste issue and that includes removing the current storage from Prairie Island then I don’t think we should close that door.”
Frentz was the prime sponsor of the 100% bill in the Senate and promised earlier in session to consider Mathews’ nuclear study bill amid Republican criticism of the energy bill being rushed over GOP concerns.
Democrats did not pass the research bill out of the committee but Frentz said DFLers would consider including the measure in a larger omnibus bill the committee will advance later in the legislative session.