By Brian Bakst
St. Paul, Minn. — The Minnesota Senate overwhelmingly supports scrapping a 17-year-old state policy that bars energy regulators from permitting new nuclear power plants, a big step for a bill long bottled up.
The debate shifts to the Republican-led House, where supporters say they have the votes to get the bill to Democratic Gov. Mark Dayton. He put conditions on his support, but didn’t threaten a veto.
Even if the bill becomes law, new plants would take several years to go from the drawing board to reality. But backers, led by Senate Majority Leader Amy Koch, say it will ignite an energy discussion stymied by a 1994 law barring licensing for additional nuclear plants. Minnesota now has two nuclear plants, near Red Wing and Monticello.
“Minnesota should not move into the future with one hand tied behind their back,” said Koch, R-Buffalo.
During the debate Wednesday, she quoted President Barack Obama, a Democrat, in urging that nuclear power have a place in the nation’s energy planning.
The 50-14 Senate vote — several Democrats joined Republicans in passing the bill — reflects the coalition of labor and business interests advocating for the bill’s passage. Unions want it to lead to new jobs during construction and for operating any new plant. Businesses see it as a way to generate reliable power.
Democratic Sen. Ellen Anderson failed in her attempt to add language preventing power companies from billing customers for planning and construction before a plant comes on line.
“Give them a guarantee they won’t be gouged because of this,” Anderson, of St. Paul, said of ratepayers.
Koch and her allies contended that making utilities shoulder the full cost of planning and construction would stop them from considering nuclear plants, effectively extending the state moratorium.
Four other Democratic amendments also went down.
None of Minnesota’s major power producers have given indications they’ll propose new nuclear plants. But Sen. Mike Jungbauer, R-East Bethel, attributed that to current state policy.
“Who the heck is going to put out a plan for something that’s banned in Minnesota?” he said. “It would be ridiculous to do that for something that’s not allowed.”
On the campaign trail, Dayton raised concerns over nuclear-waste storage when asked about the moratorium. He told reporters Wednesday that he had three conditions before he gets on board.
His standards are that the bill assures no effect on ratepayers during the planning process, there is no increase in nuclear waste beyond what comes from existing plants, and there is no weapons-grade plutonium generated by reactors.
If Dayton were to veto the bill, six senators would have to switch in his favor to uphold the veto. An override attempt would start in the Senate.