Should Minnesota’s nuclear moratorium be lifted?

Should Minnesota’s moratorium on nuclear power plants be lifted?customer surveys

It may be, perhaps, symbolic that one of the first bills at the Legislature this year to get consideration in committee was the bill to lift the state’s moratorium on new nuclear power plants. A similar bill failed last session.

The moratorium has been in effect since a highly emotional debate in the early ’90s over Xcel Energy’s (then Northern States Power) request to increase the amount of nuclear waste that it’s allowed to store at the Prairie Island nuclear plant near Red Wing.

Few citizens testified on the bill today, however.

“Utilities don’t have a need for additional base power plants,” Bill Grant of the Izaak Walton League told a House committee. “No new jobs will be created. However, lifting the ban will create real risks. Utilities will assess ratepayers for plants that may never be completed.”

Victoria Winfrey, of the Prairie Island Community, said “no other community in Minnesota should have to live in the fear of a nuclear plant the way our community does… Until a permanent national solution for dealing with nuclear waste is found, we oppose lifting the moratorium on new nuclear plants.”

But a representative of the Red Wing City Council countered her. “The fact is nuclear moratoria are not the reason nuclear power is stalled and will continue to remain so,” Dan Bender said. “The problem is the federal government has not fulfilled its decade-long promise to remove the waste.” He called on the Legislature to direct the state’s attorney general to sue the federal government.

“The city believes in removing the moratorium, you should take the opportunity to engage in the debate about nuclear power,” he said.

William Heaney of the International Brother of Electrical Workers, said the bill won’t have “much practical effect” either way but he said he considers it symbolic to “get it off the books.”

Bill sponsor Rep. Joyce Peppin, R-Rogers, “I have young kids and I’m concerned about their energy needs in the future… U.S. nuclear capacity will fall off and be non-existent by mid-century. Our energy needs are increasing by 25 percent. That need has to be met somehow. Where are we going to get that baseload power? We have a moratorium on coal in Minnesota as well. So now we have a moratorium on coal and nuclear power… My constituents want to be able to turn on lights and have warm houses.”

Peppin said lifting the moratorium doesn’t mean “we start constructing a new plant tomorrow.”

Rep. Jean Wagenius said Peppin is promoting the most expensive form of energy.

The bill was passed and moved to the Commerce Committee. One DFLer crossed over to vote with Republicans. Find the roll call vote here.

  • Bob Moffitt

    I have mixed feelings on this. While the clean air and greenhouse gas benefits of nuke power are undeniable, so are the long-term waste problems.

    Also, I fear the rising cost of this particular power source may be more than we can afford.

  • Disco

    I’m a liberal in favour of more nuke plants. So how about a little quid pro quo? Give the Republicans their nuke plants and in exchange, the tax rate on the wealthy goes up. Win-win.

  • Tyler

    Is smaller amounts of nuclear waste more or less hazardous than the coal ash slurry pond that ruined 300 acres in Tennessee? Look up the amounts of toxic and radioactive materials put into the environment by burning coal compared to nuclear power. You’ll be surprised at which is “cleaner.”

  • I’m with you on this one, Disco. I’m also a liberal in favor of nuclear power, and I actually surprised myself a little when I read Rep. Peppin’s statements and agreed whole-heartedly.

  • Smalltowngirl

    What about sticking with wind and solar, and adding a little conservation in there? Risky, expensive nuclear with no plan to secure the waste (and no jobs for 15-20 years) and old, dirty coal don’t make sense for Minnesota. C’mon Minnesota, we are smarter than that! We can build a strong local economy if we focus on investing in HOMEGROWN RENEWABLE ENERGY LIKE WIND AND SOLAR! Want Jobs?! Look there – these projects are shovel ready. The solar industry grew in Minnesota while most other industries are struggling in this economy. Solar works for Minnesota!

  • Carlin Struckman

    I am about as liberal and environmentally conscious as they come, and I strongly support lifting the moratorium. There is a completely different design for nuclear plants currently being used that not only doesn’t produce long-lived nuclear waste (~300 year half life and it turns into just plain lead), it actually uses nuclear waste for fuel turning it into the relatively clean stuff. We need new sources of energy, and these new nuclear plants are the cleanest form of energy currently available.

  • Douglas

    As much as we need new energy sources, until we can agree on a safe method or site to dispose of the waste we have from the plants already operating, how can we justify risking the future of our children by creating more?

  • I’m definitely in favor of allowing nuclear power. However, there need to be high standards in place as well. New plants need to be very efficient, with as little waste as possible.

    That said, we also need to support other methods of generating and transmitting electricity. Improve the infrastructure so we don’t lose so much in transmission. Maybe even subsidize wind or solar power where they’re viable. And eliminate ethanol subsidies – they’re nothing more than a handout to big corn producers. Ethanol is a neat trick, but not a long-term solution.

  • Jon

    I view nuclear waste as being very similar of an issue to our federal debt – we are borrowing against future generations who will be saddled with a tremendous burden. Except with nuclear waste, it will be a burden for tens of thousands of years and we are incapable of finding a real solution for it. I think it is ironic that people who care about our financial burden on tomorrow’s grandchildren do not seem to care about our environmental one.

    All this just to boil water, which then turns the generators to produce the electricity? Do we really have to generate nuclear waste just to boil water? I think we are smarter than that these days.

    It was a mistake to build the plants in the first place. A mistake to let them store more waste in casks along the banks of the Mississippi. And it would be a mistake to build any more.

  • JennyK

    Nuclear may be cleaner to produce energy, but the whole process, to me, doesn’t seem that much cleaner. We’re all familiar with the waste disposal issue with radioactive half-lives. But what of the uranium mining necessary to support the industry? Environmental damage, exploitation of native populations, cost/energy of transport of materials from remote regions. I guess I’d rather not have to choose between the better of two evils (coal vs nuclear), instead hoping for greater focus on conservation and development of new technologies.

    http://www.orionmagazine.org/index.php/articles/article/4248/

  • Eldon Larson

    Many good points have been made by the comments on this story. Personally, nuclear transmission might be the better of the ways to go. We should be directing our time, energy and finances to dealing with the safe operation of these plants along with the reusing or storage of the spent fuel. The storage issue should definitely be dealt with prior to authorizing any new ones. As far as the Prairie Island goes, I have yet to see or experience any negative consequences from its day to day operation.

  • Jim B.

    Carlin,

    Do you have more information about the newer design you mention? Nuclear plants which can create electricity out of existing nuclear waste sounds like a win-win to me.

    I support the lifting of the moratorium. While I would certainly love to see more electricity from wind and solar, these are not yet at a point where they can generate all of our needs (not to mention there are plenty of people who say they support wind but then oppose the building of turbines).

  • JB

    What’s the difference between nuclear waste and nuclear fuel? Answer, concentration-as in the waste can be REUSED as nuclear FUEL (http://www.utexas.edu/news/2009/01/27/nuclear_hybrid/). So the next steps are quite logical.

  • Susanne Vandenbosch

    Carlin: Having a design for a new type of reactor is far from having a functioning reactor. The one that is supposed to burn up nuclear waste ignores the damage that fast neutrons will do to the reactor materials in addition to other shortcomings. The smaller the reactor the higher the percentage spent on overhead. Some claim that some small reactors will make fewer fission products. This is incorrect. If fission is the process that produces the energy, the amount of fission products will be proportional to the amount of energy produced.

  • JimHopf

    Several commenters buy into the myth that nuclear is the only industry with an “unsolved” waste problem, and that nuclear waste is unique in terms of long-term hazard and being a burden to future generations. In fact, the exact opposite is true.

    Other waste streams, such as those from fossil fuel power plants and the oil industry, represent a much greater hazard, including over the very long term. Nuclear is the only industry that is required to guarantee complete containment of its wastes, for as long as they remain hazardous. Also, the industry has to pay all costs associated with this long-term waste management, again a requirement other industries do not face.

    The only impact nuclear waste will have on future generations will be the provision of (paid for) jobs for awhile, and then no impact (once the repository is sealed). Wastes from other industries and energy sources will affect future generations for millenia. So will the complete depletion of earth’s precious hydrocarbon (oil and gas) reserves.

    Like nuclear power plants themselves, stored nuclear waste has never hurt a single member of the public over the last 50 years. (Meanwhile, fossil plant pollution has been causing 25,000 deaths per year in the US, according to EPA).

    It is virtually certain that we will develop the technology to process and eliminate this waste in ~100 years or so, and there is no chance of leakage over that time frame. Thus, we basically know that nuclear waste will never have any impact (something that we can’t say about other waste streams, which are basically just dumped into the environment). And what if that technology is not developed? Well, NRC staff has reviewed the Yucca Mtn. license application and has confirmed that the repository will be able to contain the wastes for a million years (long after it ceases to be a hazard).

    Basically, nuclear is the ONLY industry whose waste problem is solved. What people should really be asking is how we can justify building more fossil fuel plants while the waste problem remains so thoroughly unsolved, with the waste (pollution) having such a terrible impact on the environment and public health.

  • JimHopf

    JennyK,

    The overall impact from uranium mining, per unit of electricity generated, is negligible compared to the impacts of coal mining, which in turn is negligible compared to the effects of coal burning (in power plants). Modern uranium mines have a much lower impact on the environment and worker health than the mines that were built way back in the ’50s.

    Many scientific studies have been performed which estimate the overall health and environmental impacts of various energy sources. All such studies fully include the impacts of uranium mining. Even with mining though, such studies conclude that nuclear’s overall impacts are tiny compared to fossil fuels and similar to renewables. (One study: http://www.externe.info/).

    It should also be noted that renewable sources like solar and wind require over 20 times as much concrete and steel and nuclear, per unit of energy generated. Iron and concrete extraction and production are not benign. They also require over 100 times as much land area be covered with industrial machinery, access roads, etc.. As we start to use renewables for a significant amount of generation we will discover that while they are better than fossil fuels, they do have some issues, limitations and negative impacts. All energy sources do.

  • marilyn elie

    I wonder if Jim Hopf even knows that the DOE has withdrawn its application for Yucca Mountain.Funding has been withdrawn as well. I sure would like to see the documentation for the NRC saying waste would be safe there for a million years.

    Talk to the ISO of your grid and see what the total generating capacity is compared to current usage. We have a surplus of electricity and usage is down, partially due to the recession and also because businesses are moving toward more efficiency and conservation because it is good for the bottom line. Electricity generated in the Northeast gets sold from Ohio to Canada thanks to interconnecting grids. And the grid is only going to get smarter.

    Private money wants nothing to do with nukes due to massive cost over runs and construction delays. Standard and Poors down rates companies that want to build a new nuclear power plant and gave Exelon a thumbs up when they bought a big wind farm.

    Take a look at Sid Goodman’s web site to see some myths debunked and some cleaver videos.

    http://www.elsidsgreenspace.com

    Marilyn Elie

  • tammy

    SOLAR & WIND; if you live near a nuclear facility like we do in Illinois the health ramifications are too high. Kids bleeding from their eyes & unexplained serious health issues the cancer rates are off the charts where 4 out of 4 persons per household has cancer; kids near nuclear plants have their jaws wired shut in the 4th & 5th grades due to radiation exposure. There’s not enough regulations & EPA isn’t in charge either.

    When these corporations & politicians act accountable & responsible then lets talk.

    Insurance & construction costs are through the roof & once nuclear materials escape there’s no cleaning up or going back. The private water supplies are still contaminated in Illinois…

  • Smalltowngirl

    What do we want?! Jobs!!! When do we want them?! 15-20 years from now!

    However, solar, wind, and efficiency jobs are available NOW!!! http://www.solarmn.org

    Re: JimHopf “Nuclear is the only industry that is required to guarantee complete containment of its wastes, for as long as they remain hazardous.” Yet in over 30 years, we have found no site to safely contain the waste – it’s still sitting on the banks of the Missisippi in “temporary” storage casks.

  • JimHopf

    Marilyn,

    I’ve aware of everything that’s happening in the Yucca licensing saga, down to the last detail (I read updates every single day). Yucca was going to pass NRC review, but the Obama administration, purely as a political favor to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (from Nevada) has been trying to have DOE pull the license application. Problem is, this is against the expressed intent of Congress, and the Nuclear Waste Policy Act, and is almost certainly illegal. Reid can block legislation (and Yucca funding), but he can’t get congress to pass an amendment to the NWPA, which is probably what is actually required, since large, bipartisan majorities favor Yucca. The Atomic Safety Licensing Board (the judicial arm of NRC) forcefully and unanimously ruled that DOE did not have the authority to pull the application, and the NRC’s review should finish. The NRC commissioners can vote to overrule the ASLB, but NRC chairman Jazcko (who was hand-picked by Reid) clearly does not have the (commissioner) votes. So, he’s stalling and delaying the formal vote indefinitely. Several states have sued DOE and the issue is headed to court. The trials will start this spring. All indications are that the courts will rule against DOE and the administration.

    Where’s the NRC documentation saying that it’s safe for a million years? It’s right there in the completed NRC safety evaluation report, sitting on everyone’s desk at NRC. But, it hasn’t been published because Jazcko is suppressing the release of the report (i.e., this completed work, that has been paid for by taxpayers). I’m confident that he can’t get away with this for long. The report will be released by court order, or by a Freedom of Information Act Request (if we have to). Note that many leaders in the new congress have also said that they are going to open investigations of Jazcko’s actions.

    It remains true that renewable sources deliver (less valuable) intermittent kW-hrs at a higher cost than nuclear delivers steady, reliable base load kW-hrs (as shown by official govt. data, see below). And these costs don’t even consider the costs of grid upgrades and fossil fuel backup that these renewable also require.

    Your statement that private money won’t touch nuclear is merely another way of saying that nuclear remains somewhat more expensive than fossil fuels. Everyone knows that. Renewables, however, are more expensive than fossil fuels by a far larger amount, and (unlike nuclear) they will be limited to a small fraction of overall generation, due to their intermittentcy). The only reason renewables are being built (by private money, or whatever) is outright govt. mandates that they be used, as well as massive govt. subsidies (far larger than anything nuclear receives). Meanwhile, with the failure of cap-and-trade, or any type of policy that puts a tangible price on CO2 and/or other pollutants, nuclear is not given any (economic) credit at all for being totally clean, whereas fossil plants have horrendous impacts. With this kind of unfair treatment from govt., no wonder some investors view nuclear as risky

  • JimHopf

    Tammy,

    Stop making stuff up! What you’re saying is inflammatory, and has zero chance of being true. No formal scientific bodies, or govt. agencies recognize any public health impact from US nuclear power plants. Govt. agencies do formally recognize the horrendous impacts of fossil fuel plants (25,000 deaths every year).

    Radiation is very easy to measure, and no significant increases in radiation levels are seen around any US nuclear plants. It has been, and continues to be confirmed, by extensive monitoring, that nobody living around the plants are receiving more than a tiny fraction of what they get from natural background. And no, there’s no chance that this is all a conspiracy. Since radiation is so easy to measure (even by anti-nukes), there’s no way that they could get away with it.

  • JimHopf

    Smalltowngirl,

    See my post (8:47) post about the purely political reasons why a repository has not been approved. From a scientific and technical perspective, this problem has been solved (something that can’t really be said of any other industrial waste stream).

    While the political stalemate continues (or while we develop the technology to eliminate the long-lived waste), the waste will be safely stored at plant sites, as it always has been. Nobody has ever been sickened or injured by stored nuclear waste, and it is extremely unlikely that anyone ever will be.

    The thing is, when you don’t just release or dump your wastes into the environment, they remain sitting there, staring at you. Still beats releasing it, wouldn’t you say?! Do you know where the wastes/toxins of other industries (like fossil fuels) are stored? They’re “stored” in the air we breathe, in the water we drink, in the soil, and in the food we eat (like fish). These wastes, that have spread throughout the environment, are having a huge health impact, now and into the distant future. Nuclear waste has not, and will not, have any such impacts.

    Using the (non-existant) nuclear waste issue as an excuse to keep using fossil fuels is offensive. If MN has a moratorium on anything, it should be on all fossil fuel plants (coal or gas). In fact, a steady phase out of those plants should be required. That nuclear, one of the cleanest sources, is the only one than is not allowed to be built, is offensive.

  • JimHopf
  • jim

    It will take at lest 10 years to build a nuke powerplant . If history is at least a feeble predictor of future nuke power plant projects it will be 20 years to completion and will cost 10s of $billions more than predicted.

    This is BIG GOVERNMENT Beuracracy at its worst . Still no storage facility for waste .

    We can build windmills and solar panels now . They work in Denmark they work in Germany . They create jobs NOW . Why do conservatives (predominantly ) always look to the past for energy answers ? It’s time for Mn to produce energy with what we have an abundance of . Wind and sun .