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.”
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.