Ending Minnesota's nuclear ban has bipartisan support. But would lifting the ban mean new plants?
Presently, the state’s two aging nuclear plants are set to shut down in the 2030s, and while many say nuclear could be the answer to reliable clean energy, massive costs and environmental concerns remain a major roadblock. But would nuclear have any future in Minnesota if the state lifted its ban?
ST. PAUL — As policymakers look for ways to cut carbon emissions and energy costs, many groups have touted nuclear energy as the best technology to generate clean, reliable power.
But in Minnesota, a 1994 moratorium stands in the way of utilities developing new nuclear power plants. Whether it should remain in place is a perennial issue in state politics, and in recent years it's an issue on which some Republicans and climate-conscious progressives have found common ground.
The state’s two aging nuclear plants are set to shut down in the 2030s, and while many say nuclear could be the answer to reliable clean energy, massive costs and environmental concerns remain a major roadblock. Would nuclear have any future in Minnesota if the state lifted its ban?
This July, Republican gubernatorial candidate Scott Jensen made the moratorium issue part of his campaign , calling for the end of the state’s "clean car" rule and lifting the ban on new nuclear power plant construction.
Eric Meyer, founder and executive director of Generation Atomic, a Minnesota pro-nuclear group that sees the energy source as the best available solution for reliable carbon-free energy, says it’s a rare instance that he agrees with Republicans.
“The one thing that the Republicans are right about is we do need more nuclear power in Minnesota and this moratorium has outlived its usefulness if it ever had any,” Meyer said.
Nuclear has long been unpopular among many environmentalists due to the risk of meltdown and the question of what to do with radioactive waste, but it's increasingly seen as a way to address human-caused climate change. Meyer said the lifting moratorium remains a long shot in the Legislature, where many Democrats remain opposed. But some Democrats in the Senate backed pro-nuclear legislation this session, and others in the House are receptive, he said.
Gov. Tim Walz, a Democrat, has a plan to shift the state to carbon-free energy sources by 2050 which remains neutral on the topic of nuclear power. But in 2009 as a state representative, Walz called for Minnesota to end its nuclear moratorium.
What would end of moratorium mean?
If Minnesota's ban on new nuclear remained in place, the state would likely have no nuclear energy by the 2040s.
Xcel Energy runs two nuclear power plants in Minnesota, one in Monticello and Prairie Island, a two-reactor plant in Red Wing. Both 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 sought to extend Monticello’s permit to 2040, but has not made requests to regulators for the Prairie Island facility.
If Minnesota lifted its ban on new nuclear power plants, however, we wouldn't immediately see a nuclear renaissance: Opponents and supporters say if there were any significant changes in Minnesota, they wouldn’t happen overnight.
“Even if the moratorium went away tomorrow, we're not going to start building anything,” Meyer said. “These projects do take a long time to develop.”
It can take a decade to build a reactor, and often projects are significantly over budget and behind schedule. The only current nuclear project in the U.S., the construction of two new reactors at Georgia’s Plant Vogtle, which started in 2009, has been plagued by delays and could end up costing more than $30 billion — more than double the original $14 billion price tag, the Associated Press reported in May.
It's also not entirely clear if the major utilities have serious interest in developing new plants, perhaps due to costs. Xcel Energy has historically not been outspoken on the moratorium and has not offered any clear signals on if new nuclear fits into its plans to become carbon-free by 2050. Xcel representatives did not respond to requests for comment for this story.
Sen. John Marty, DFL-Roseville, one of the authors of the 1994 moratorium, points out that there are 38 states without a ban on new nuclear, and none of them have seen aggressive development of new plants. The longtime state senator and former chairman of the Senate Environment and Energy Committee says he keeps an open mind about new technologies that might make nuclear energy safer, but he remains skeptical that utilities will want to embark on expensive projects.
“Read between the lines of what Xcel is saying, and it's not like they're all here begging us for it. They could have a pretty powerful campaign for it if they wanted, and so, I kind of laugh when I see the proponents say this moratorium is such an urgent thing,” he said. “I'm not sure that's the case and I think Xcel Energy isn't sure that's the case.”
Advocates, such as Meyer, say there are a number of new reactor designs that could reduce costs and increase safety, such as small modular reactors. Those technologies aren’t yet available for energy production, though Xcel Energy is looking into operating a small modular reactor under development at the Idaho National Laboratory, which would mean it could use that experience in operating future reactors in Minnesota, Meyer said.
Marty still opposes new plants but says he keeps an open mind about new developments in nuclear technology. But with the urgent need to address a looming climate crisis, he said, it would be best to make immediate use of currently available renewable energy technology rather than wait a decade or longer for improved nuclear options.
Still, he sees current nuclear plants as an important part of reducing carbon in the present.
"I'm not a supporter of closing down existing nuclear power, because the biggest problem we have is the climate one," he said. "(If) they come up with a solution to the waste and the cost and safety and I'm on board."