The leak of contaminated water from Xcel Energy’s nuclear power plant in Monticello hasn’t exactly changed a lot of minds as the Minnesota Legislature debates the future of nuclear’s role in a carbon-free electric grid.
But it has become part of the debate among lawmakers — and perhaps served to reinforce existing views — on a $300,000 bill to study emerging nuclear technology in a state where new plants are currently banned. A study has the support of Gov. Tim Walz, but the idea has divided Democrats who control the House and Senate.
“I think that (the Monticello leak) is just maybe a reminder that we need to be very careful,” said Rep. Patty Acomb, a Minnetonka DFLer who leads energy policy for House Democrats. “It certainly comes with risks, and the waste is always there. I am certainly concerned about what that means going forward.”
Nuclear has long been controversial among Democrats, many of whom argue that new plants are too expensive and carry pollution risk. But there has been a small, yet increasingly influential, contingent of DFLers pushing to relax Minnesota’s stance toward the energy source because it can provide steady carbon-free power when the state has asked utilities to be emissions-free by 2040.
Primarily, those Democrats are interested in the potential of smaller “modular” nuclear reactors, which supporters hope will be cheaper than large traditional plants and will be used as a flexible supplement to intermittent wind and solar power. There are none operating in the U.S. but the technology is advancing and could become part of the nation’s energy supply eventually.
Currently, however, Minnesota has two large and traditional nuclear plants, and both are owned by Xcel Energy. Those plants will play a significant role in Xcel’s ability to reach the carbon-free benchmark in time. In 2021, nuclear made up nearly a third of the company’s energy mix.
The moratorium on new plants means no other electric utility in Minnesota has access to such a large amount of nuclear power. Republicans broadly argue nuclear is safe in the context of energy production and should be used to maintain a reliable grid.
Sen. Nick Frentz, a DFLer from North Mankato, is Acomb’s counterpart in the Senate. And he has been more open to nuclear. The committee he chairs heard a bill this year to relax the moratorium and allow smaller reactors.
That day, the committee’s website published a presentation titled “The Tritium Tempest in a Teapot,” referencing the compound found in groundwater at the Monticello plant.
Xcel and state regulators have said the leak has not posed a risk to the public or the environment, though some have questioned the lag between when the leak was found and when it was announced.
That bill to loosen the nuclear moratorium is unlikely to move forward. Frentz told MinnPost that he needs more information about small nuclear reactors, including greater input about the risks. But his budget plan did include the nuclear study, which drew praise from Republicans.
The legislation would commission research on 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.
“If (the Monticello leak) caused any fundamental change in the members in the committee’s view of nuclear, they have not mentioned it to me,” Frentz said.
Walz on Thursday said the debate for him is more about the question of nuclear waste storage, calling for a long-term repository and avoiding more above-ground casks at the Prairie Island plant next to the Prairie Island Indian Community. On Wednesday, Xcel announced a deal to pay the tribe more money each year because of storage concerns as the utility seeks to extend the life of its plant.
Still, Walz said there are promising opportunities around smaller modular nuclear reactors worth exploring. “I think they’re doing the right thing,” he said about the research. “Study this.”
Acomb said House DFLers are open to negotiations on the nuclear study bill but are still concerned about the potential price of building nuclear plants. She added that the issue is being studied already outside of state government.
“I don’t think we need to do that here,” she said. “As I look at the limited funds we have, I want to make sure we’re putting them towards things that are actually going to show results.”