Lawmakers weigh nuclear power study as Minnesota shoots for carbon-free electricity by 2040
A bipartisan group of Senate lawmakers is backing a bill to explore the feasibility of smaller “advanced” reactors.
ST. PAUL — A new law signed by Gov. Tim Walz last week sets a goal for Minnesota to shift all of its electricity to carbon-free sources by the year 2040.
While the new legislation favors renewable sources of energy, an increasingly broad coalition of advocates and lawmakers say nuclear power should still be part of the picture, as it can reliably produce large baseload amounts of power without creating carbon emissions tied to climate change.
Historically, not all Minnesota Democrats have been particularly receptive to nuclear energy, and the state has a moratorium on new plants that has been in place since 1994 — one of a dozen that have moved to do so. But a bipartisan group of Senate lawmakers is backing a bill to explore the feasibility of smaller “advanced” reactors that many observers say will be the future of nuclear power.
“This is an effort to have all the tools in the toolbox as we work toward retiring many other forms of baseload generation,” said Sen. Andrew Mathews, R-Princeton, as he presented his bill to the Senate energy committee last week.
Mathews, who represents the central Minnesota district home to where the coal-fired Sherburne County Generating Station, or Sherco, is set to be retired and replaced by a solar development by Xcel Energy, said the study would be crucial in future conversations about whether to keep the pause on new nuclear plants.
Minnesota’s nuclear moratorium has been in place for nearly 30 years, but as climate concerns continue to grow, many environmental advocates have warmed up to nuclear energy as another tool to address emissions. The development of small modular reactors, which proponents say could reduce construction costs and be safer than traditional plants, have been seen as a potential improvement over traditional nuclear power plants.
While those technologies aren’t yet available for energy production, Xcel Energy is looking into operating a small modular reactor under development at the Idaho National Laboratory.
The nuclear study bill would direct the Department of Commerce to evaluate the costs, benefits and impacts of advanced nuclear reactor designs. In its current form, it appropriates $300,000 toward the study, which would have to be completed by the end of 2024. The study would also have to examine issues with the storage of nuclear waste, for which there currently is no long-term solution.
Xcel Energy runs two nuclear power plants in Minnesota: Prairie Island, a two-reactor plant in Red Wing, and one in Monticello. They generate about one-quarter of Minnesota’s electricity. Both plants came online in the 1970s, and federal licenses for Prairie Island’s two reactors are set to expire in 2033 and 2034. Monticello’s is set to expire in 2030. Xcel has requested to extend Monticello’s permit to 2050 but has made no requests to regulators for the Prairie Island facility.
Sen. Nick Frentz, a North Mankato Democrat who carried the 2040 energy bill in the Senate, is a co-sponsor of the nuclear study bill. Frentz, who chairs the Senate Committee on Energy, Utilities, Environment and Climate, said he believes a study is “appropriate” given nuclear being a carbon-free source of energy.
But he added that nuclear waste storage issue has not yet been solved, which is an issue of particular concern to the Prairie Island Indian Community in southeastern Minnesota, which has a nuclear plant right next to its reservation. The U.S. has not figured out a permanent solution to waste storage, meaning radioactive spent fuel must be kept on-site at plants.
“I think we should be studying it, and I think if there’s a solution to the waste issue — that includes removing the current storage from Prairie Island — then I don’t think we should close that door,” Frentz said.
Sen. Jen McEwen, DFL-Duluth, said she supported a study and appreciated the amendment to explore issues with waste storage. But she said the committee should consider adding a component of the study specifically looking at the effects of nuclear waste storage on public health and analysis of risks to the state in the event of nuclear malfunctions.
Sen. John Marty, DFL-Roseville, one of the authors of the 1994 nuclear moratorium, said it would be hard for him to outright oppose a study, but he questioned just how much bearing a $300,000 study would have on the moratorium when a multibillion-dollar industry still hasn't rolled out any commercial small reactor technology.
"They have billions, literally billions of dollars that have been poured into research, and so on, and some day they're going to come up with something. But for us to pretend that the Legislature is the one that's blocking the progress because we have a moratorium in this and 12 other states is bizarre," Marty said in an interview. "They don't need Minnesota to do it, and Minnesota won't be left behind because if they come up with a promising technology and everybody will say 'fine.'"
Groups that back the advanced nuclear study include the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce, Xcel Energy, Minnesota Power and Great River Energy, who submitted letters in support.
The Laborers International Union of North American Minnesota and North Dakota, which was a major supporter of the 2040 clean energy bill, testified in favor as well. LiUNA marketing manager Kevin Pranis said exploring nuclear power might be one of the “hard and uncomfortable” changes of thought groups will have to make in order to address climate change.
“Our members are doing hard and uncomfortable things and sacrificing jobs in Senator Mathews district and other places in coal plants,” he told senators. “And so we’re all going to have to bend and change our thinking if we’re really going to get to those solutions. We think this is a part of that.”
The advanced nuclear study bill did not pass out of committee earlier this month, but will be considered for inclusion as part of a larger bill later this session, Frentz said.
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