MINNESOTA: State is not giving up on nuclear
RED WING, Minn. - Even as Minnesota becomes more reliant on renewable energy sources, the state will continue leaning heavily on nuclear power. Industry officials and lawmakers said the state's energy needs require a steady source of "baseload po...
RED WING, Minn. - Even as Minnesota becomes more reliant on renewable energy sources, the state will continue leaning heavily on nuclear power.
Industry officials and lawmakers said the state's energy needs require a steady source of "baseload power" - constant output that doesn't fluctuate. Wind turbines popping up across the state won't take the place of that vital need.
"The industry as a whole in the U.S. does not feel threatened by emerging technologies," said Mike Wadley, Nuclear Management Co.'s site vice president at the Prairie Island nuclear generating plant.
Renewable sources, such as wind, water and biomass, produce energy but remain at the mercy of weather and climate changes, he said. Droughts, Wadley said, affect hydroelectric and biomass power, and "wind generation is wonderful - when the wind is blowing."
"It's intermittent," he said. "We can't control it."
But nuclear power can be counted on, many say, despite concerns over waste storage. That is why Xcel Energy, Minnesota's largest energy producer, is banking on nuclear well into the future.
Plans are in place to upgrade power output in both the Monticello, Minn., and Prairie Island, Minn., plants, said Charlie Bomberger, Xcel's general manager of nuclear asset management. By investing about $270 million in each facility, he expects to increase the life of the plants by 20 years.
Monticello's federal operating license was to expire in 2010, but it received a new license this year that reaches to 2030. Prairie Island's licenses will expire in 2013 and 2014. Xcel officials said they will seek 20-year extensions for the two reactors near Red Wing.
While those dates approach, others say it is time to look even further ahead - perhaps by expanding the number of Minnesota's nuclear plants. Rep. Joyce Peppin, one of the Legislature's leading nuclear power proponents, said the state must begin investigating that possibility by lifting its moratorium on new nuclear plants.
Provisions of the ban, she said, prohibit the state's Public Utilities Commission from even discussing the matter. Peppin said she will continue pushing legislation in 2008 to lift the ban, so nuclear's future in Minnesota can be explored.
Without that mapped out, the Rogers Republican fears Minnesota could be on a course for energy blackouts like those in California.
"You start getting to a point where you must make a decision of, 'Are we going to be living in a cave?' " she said.
Sen. Ellen Anderson, DFL-St. Paul, wants no part of a push for more nuclear plants in the state, saying the moratorium was instituted for a reason.
Anderson said she's willing to hear discussion on the topic, but said talks should be limited to lawmakers who create policy - not by the utility commission members who implement it.
"The Legislature needs to take the lead," she said, adding that the joint Legislative Electric Energy Task Force would be the appropriate venue for such a discussion.
Anderson, who authored legislation establishing Minnesota's renewable energy standard, said costs, security issues and questions of where to store nuclear waste stand in the way of new nuclear generation here.
"I don't think there's an appetite to do new nuclear power in Minnesota," she said.
Republican Gov. Tim Pawlenty agreed.
"The future will be about more wind, more solar, more biomass, more biogas, hydrogen fuels cells, hopefully clean coal, maybe next generation nuclear in some parts of the country," Pawlenty said in an interview. "I don't think (more nuclear) will happen in Minnesota because of our political culture here."
Nuclear makes up 25 percent to 30 percent of Xcel Energy's Upper Midwest power.
Perhaps the biggest obstacle to nuclear expansion is the question of waste storage. Plans to haul spent nuclear fuel to Nevada's Yucca Mountain remain in limbo, with U.S. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., leading the charge against the project.
Opponents of the project claim the site - about 90 miles north of Las Vegas - and its geologic characteristics are unfit for a massive repository.
Sen. Steve Murphy, DFL-Red Wing, scoffed at the notion, saying the repository could be open for business in less than a year.
"I think the risks are nominal at best," the senator and Xcel employee said.
Wadley said he would like to see the repository used temporarily, until a viable method of recycling spent fuel is rendered.
"But that's not a technical decision," he said. "It's a political decision."
While Peppin doesn't think an expansion of nuclear would necessarily mean phasing out coal plants, that's just what Murphy proposes.
Coal's fossil-fueled plants don't create a good energy mix as Minnesota heads toward a greener future, he said.
"If we're serious about flipping the switch to 'off' on some of these coal plants . . ." Murphy said. "Then, that's where nuclear fits in."
Eventually, the state will need at least one other nuclear plant, said Murphy, who once worked at the Prairie Island facility.
Sen. Yvonne Prettner Solon is one of two lawmakers leading the Legislative Electric Energy Task Force. The Duluth Democrat said legislators must continue evaluating the role of different energy sources, including nuclear. That doesn't mean nixing any particular option, she said, but added that nuclear's reputation has improved since the 1970s.
"There's more willingness to re-look at it among people in Minnesota," Prettner Solon said.
Longaecker reports for the Red Wing Republican-Eagle, which is owned by Forum Communications.