Legislative votes to lift nuclear plant moratorium offer vivid reminder of different era, different politics

Seventeen years of concern over nuclear power disappeared in a three-hour debate Thursday evening when Minnesota House members voted to lift the state’s longtime moratorium on building such power plants in the state.

The House bill, pushed hard by the Republican majority, is similar to a nuke bill passed earlier in the session by the Senate. But some differences will have to be reconciled by a conference committee before Gov. Mark Dayton decides whether to veto or sign. His position, to date, has not been clear.

The outcome of the House’s action wasn’t particularly surprising.

In the words of House Majority Leader Matt Dean, this bill is another symbol that “Minnesota is open for business.”

No sight of green activists
What was surprising is the lack of passion of green activists, who once jammed Capitol corridors demanding that the state say no to nukes.

There was nary an activist in sight Thursday, although there was some passion among DFL legislators who pointed out in speeches and amendments that the problem that created the moratorium in the first place is no closer to being resolved than it was decades ago. The problem, of course, is what to do with the radioactive waste.

DFL legislators pushed at least two amendments that would have tied lifting the moratorium to having a national waste storage system in place. Those amendments were defeated, as were amendments that would have protected potential costs to rate payers and an amendment that would have given people a right to vote on nuclear power plants being built in their locales.

But along the way, there was some interesting history about this issue.

Rep. Lyndon Carlson, DFL-Crystal, reminded members that the moratorium was put in place, in a bipartisan fashion, by the 1994 Legislature because of the waste issue and the construction of “temporary” storage casks at Prairie Island.

“We authorized a maximum of 17 casks then,” Carlson said. “What are they up to today? 25? We still have the same issue today, no permanent storage facility.”

Xcel plant in Monticello
Xcel plant in Monticello

Rep. Frank Hornstein, DFL-Minneapolis, had more history lessons. He reminded legislators that in the 1980s, Minnesota was considered by the feds as a possible site for waste disposal because of granite bedrock in some areas of the state.

Hornstein had offered an amendment that would have delayed lifting the moratorium until a national storage facility is functioning and that that facility could NOT be in Minnesota.

His amendment was defeated. The bill’s author, Joyce Peppin, R-Rogers, declared most of the amendments as “poison pills,” which they probably were.

A few moments of passion
Despite the predictability, there were moments of real passion.

When Rep. Joe Atkins, DFL-Inver Grove Heights, put up an amendment that would have allowed people a right to vote on whether a nuclear power plant could be built in their area, Rep. Tom Anzelc, DFL-Balsam Township, gave the day’s most passionate speech.

“Why not let the people decide?” Anzelc said. “In 1994, NSP, now Xcel, came here to receive permission to add those storage caskets [(his word] to Prairie Island. No one asked the people of Prairie Island what they felt about storage of spent nuclear fuel next to their homes. It was wrong then, and it’s wrong now.”

Despite the speech, the Atkins amendment went down in flames.

Nothing could stop this nuclear-powered train.

Safety was constantly brought up as an issue. It was pointed out by a couple of DFLers that on the very day this debate was going on, there was an issue of the safety of something called control rods at a number of nuclear plants in the country, including the Xcel plant in Monticello.

Peppin responded to those concerns by reading a letter from Xcel assuring everyone that there was no big problem.

At other times, debates wandered off to strange places.

For example, Rep. Phyllis Kahn, DFL-Minneapolis, asked Rep. Michael Beard, R-Shakopee, if he’d been quoted accurately in a MinnPost article by Don Shelby. He had been quoted accurately, Beard said, but he wished that Shelby had used all of his comments, which were about God, global warming, mankind and the rebuilding of Nagasaki and Hiroshima.

He also said that the Huffington Post had picked up the article and now he’s “either a national hero or a pariah,” depending on your point of view.

That those cities could be rebuilt is “a shining example of [mankind’s] God-given talents,” Beard said in responding to Kahn.

Kahn said she was surprised that Beard, a strong pro-life advocate, didn’t realize the huge damage caused to the fetuses of Japanese women who were in those cities at the time of the bombings.

Beard was frustrated.

“This has veered way off- track,” he said.

He was right about that. But the whole off-the-track business was entertaining, too.

“I suddenly don’t care about unborn fetuses?” Beard said. “I suppose that’s what we’ll see in the headlines tomorrow: Beard hates Japanese fetuses.”

For the record, he doesn’t.

Only one amendment approved
And, for the record, Kahn’s amendment, which would prohibit use of weapons-grade plutonium in any nuke plant built in Minnesota, was the only amendment to pass.

In all likelihood, it would be at least 15 years before a nuclear power plant would be built in Minnesota, according to the Republicans.

Just what the political climate will be in coming years regarding nukes is impossible to gauge. But what is clear is the climate surrounding nuclear power today is different from 17 years ago when there was grave concern over issues that have yet to be addressed.

Doug Grow writes about public affairs, state politics and other topics. He can be reached at dgrow [at] minnpost [dot] com.

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Comments (11)

  1. Submitted by Neal Rovick on 02/18/2011 - 09:54 am.

    …What was surprising is the lack of passion of green activists…

    Not so surprising after decades of realizing there are environmental costs to ALL forms of energy generation, rising oil prices, evidence of the harm from mercury from coal plants, and, the 900 pound gorilla in the room, evidence of harm from increasing carbon dioxide in the environment.

    A lesser of evils, it is easier to contain the “pollution” from a nuclear plant than a coal plant.

  2. Submitted by Douglas Owens-Pike on 02/18/2011 - 11:06 am.

    Doug: thanks for being there and giving us this report. I am amazed no one spoke about economics. What I can’t understand about this new leadership is their willingness to give infinite subsidies to make something like nuclear power happen, but refer to DFL as budget busters. Lots of economic studies show that without government subsidies no nukes would currently be under construction. Yet, those rate payers will be paying. We will all pay due to increased CO2 emissions with nukes when you consider their complete life cycle:
    mining the ore, concentrating the uranium, building the plant/security/safety/redundancy and ultimately waste storage not only the spent fuel but everything made radioactive in the process including the significant parts of the plant. No part of this makes sense vs. investing comparable $$$ in efficiency.

  3. Submitted by Eric Ferguson on 02/18/2011 - 11:07 am.

    Neal’s right. The costs of coal have a lot of us rethinking things. We probably haven’t changed our minds yet, because nuclear still has huge problems. Nonetheless, it’s been 17 years since the moratorium, 25 years since Chernobyl, and we know much more about global warming than we did 25 years ago. It’s worth asking what’s changed, what new facts there are.

    For example, we know coal had considerable external costs, meaning the environment and health of people who aren’t selling coal or power produced by coal. Turns out if the price of coal included it’s real costs, the price would triple, and nuclear as well as every other energy source suddenly looks better. http://www.reuters.com/article/2011/02/16/usa-coal-study-idUSN1628366220110216

  4. Submitted by andy on 02/18/2011 - 12:48 pm.

    Sure- externalities are the point. Nukes certainly have to be in the mix to get us out of the mess we are in. But are the fundamentally unserious people currently in charge at the Legislature the ones to decide how it’s going to go? Can people who want to destroy governance provide the oversight which is absolutely essential for the safe deployment of this technology? My guess is they pushing nukes because they hope it will make DFLers sad and because the industry, coincidentally, is a huge GOP donor.

  5. Submitted by Tom Blees on 02/18/2011 - 02:38 pm.

    The waste issue is entirely overblown. The temporary storage casks that are used at Prairie Island and elsewhere are perfectly safe. You could go hug them and be fine. But the real solution to the waste issue has already been solved by our own scientists who developed the Integral Fast Reactor (IFR), which ran for 30 years at Argonne National Lab West (now Idaho National Lab). They developed a reactor/recycling system that can transform all the long-lived radioactive elements and transform them into electricity, leaving a much smaller amount of inert waste that would only be radioactive over normal background levels for a few hundred years, yet couldn’t leach anything into the environment for thousands of years. We have only to deploy the technology that we spent billions developing.

    The so-called “nuclear waste” that everyone’s so worried about isn’t waste at all—it’s an incredibly rich source of energy. Today’s nuclear reactors utilize only about 0.6% of the energy stored in uranium. IFRs can utilize 100%. Even with the incredible inefficiency of our current generation of reactors, fuel costs are still considered a triviality. Imagine if our reactors were 160 times more efficient, as IFRs will be. Fuel cost would not only be trivial, fuel would actually be free. How’s that? Well, since IFRs can utilize not only spent fuel—aka “waste”—that’s been accumulating for half a century (and any more that we will produce in the future as we finish out the lifetimes of our lightwater reactor fleet) AND dismantled nuclear weapons, but they can also use depleted uranium for fuel. There is so much depleted uranium already out of the ground and available (indeed, we’d LOVE to get rid of it) that it could provide all the energy—not just electricity, but total energy—that humanity will need for nearly a thousand years before we’d run out and have to mine uranium again.

    Fortunately, both state and federal lawmakers are being educated about this amazing technology. Minnesota’s own Joe Shuster, who has written extensively about IFRs in his book Beyond Fossil Fools, has made himself available to the governor and to state lawmakers so that their decisions regarding nuclear power can be informed and well-reasoned, taking into account the real solution to not only the lamentably mis-named waste problem, but what is truly the path to an energy-rich future for the entire planet.

    Tom Blees
    President, The Science Council for Global Initiatives
    Author of Prescription for the Planet

  6. Submitted by Tom Blees on 02/18/2011 - 03:00 pm.

    Douglas @#2 writes about the economics of nuclear power as a deal-breaker. Yet poor economics of nuclear power are only poor in countries where anti-nuclear groups have made constructing nuclear plants so troublesome that no company wants to take a chance on building a multi-billion-dollar project if it can be shut down by a handful of people with signs and lawyers.

    Japan built two modern nuclear plants in the late nineties for about $1,600/kW. They were the first two GE-designed ABWRs ever built, in a country with not only a high wage level for their workers but where virtually all the material was imported. Not only did they build them for that very economical price, but they built them in just 36 and 39 months. Remember, these were US-designed power plants, the same ones that allegedly will cost anywhere from $5,000-8,000/kW and supposedly take up to a decade to build in the USA. Right now the Chinese are building Westinghouse-designed AP-1000 reactors, even more advanced than the ABWRs built in Japan, for about $1,700/kW for the first ones made, with expectations of getting the price down to about $1,000/kW once their mass-production supply lines are in place. So you can see that there’s nothing wrong with nuclear power per se. There’s just something wrong with nuclear power in the USA. It’s policy and anti-nuclear roadblocks. The technology is fine. Japan’s starting to build more ABWRs now, and India, China, Russia and South Korea are not only building nuclear plants but exporting them as well. Meanwhile, Americans are saying it can’t be done. Poppycock!

    As for Douglas’ arguments about the life cycle carbon costs of nuclear power, that argument doesn’t hold water. The IPCC looked at that issue and said that nuclear is on a par with wind in terms of life cycle carbon costs. But if we build IFRs (see my previous post) it would be near zero, far better than wind or anything else, because we could quit mining and enriching uranium. For more on this issue, see question #10 at this link: tinyurl.com/34h9sh7

  7. Submitted by Mark Snyder on 02/18/2011 - 04:06 pm.

    I would suggest that the lack of green activists has less to do with nuclear seemingly being seen as less awful of an option than in the past and more with that the green activists saw the writing on the wall and chose not to beat their heads against it.

    The House and Senate majorities have determined this was going to pass and nothing was going to stop them.

  8. Submitted by Rod Loper on 02/20/2011 - 02:56 pm.

    There will be no construction jobs from this but there will be lots of jobs for out of state consulting firms with GOP connections drawing
    big fees at the expense of us ratepayers. The repubs are taking care of their buddies.

  9. Submitted by Annie Grandy on 02/20/2011 - 09:11 pm.

    Mr. Blees, I find it hard to believe everything you say since the laboratory at Idaho Falls began its reactor in 1984 and “it was ultimately canceled in 1994 by S.Amdt. 2127 to H.R. 4506.” That is not 30 years.
    There seemed to be some conflict of interest between the “Director of Argonne National Laboratories, Alan Schriesheim, {who} was a member of the Board of Directors of Science’s parent organization, the American Association for the Advancement of Science” in which an Argonne laboratory employee who had complained about the safety of the IFR was denigrated by Science. In addition, as of December 30, 2010, there were no IFR’s in operation.
    The world and the US desperately need this technology if it, indeed, is ready for mass implementation. I hope you can direct me to more current information that proves you are right and Wikipedia (the source of my information) is outdated. Thank you.

  10. Submitted by siri Lehmann on 03/14/2011 - 10:28 am.

    I can direct you to more current information- Watch the recent interview where Dan Rather (HDNet)interviews Eric Loewen of GE Hitachi- you can hear about the most advanced nuclear reactor(including a recycling center for SNF. There is also a recent article with Loewen in Esquire mag. Also, search Dr. Charles Till, one of the scientist in charge of the Integral Fast Reactor research program. Other scientists-Len Koch, Yoon Chang. Articles written by the scientsts who were there doing the research helps to understand the technology and how it integrates safety and uses spent fuel. Steve Kirsch writes about “a country without a plan”. Another informative read in Nat’l geographic’s: Can Nuclear Waste Spark an Energy Solution. visit http://www.thesciencecouncil.com and http://www.beyondfossil fools for book reviews. Also search AP1000-westinghouse. This is a good start-we could all use to learn more on the advanced Generation IV reactor. Then we can tell our leaders where to lead us for a rational energy future …According to the scientists involved in the research – there are no technical show stoppers, only political ones. We need to build a demonstration plant NOW…FYI: this type of modern reactor has automatic shutdown and cannot have a core meltdown unlike Generation II reactor at Fukusumi, Japan. However, so far, there has not been a meltdown there either…and radiation exposures are below the allowed exposure amount.

  11. Submitted by rolf westgard on 03/24/2011 - 09:11 am.

    Good posts, Tom Blees. Despite everything that has happened at Fukushima, nuclear is far and away our best option. The energy available in Einstein’s formula is the best that we have in the long run for energy product.

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