Minnesota and Wisconsin say climate change puts atomic energy back in play
Farmers know about climate. That’s why the legislatures in two of the nation’s great farming states in the upper Midwest are taking a new look at nuclear energy. Draft bills that would repeal decades old bans on new nuclear power plants are on the docket for Minnesota and Wisconsin. The Minnesota the legislature appears to be out in front of the utilities who are hedging their bets. In Wisconsin, a long history of environmental activism puts the profound change in thinking about nuclear energy in sharper focus.
What’s going on in the high plains mirrors debates taking place in Kentucky, West Virginia, Missouri, and Oklahoma. States are setting their own energy policies when it comes to atomic power.
What's changed in Minnesota?
Minnesota, which is the twelfth largest state by area in the U.S., but is the 25th populous, with just over 5 million population has one nuclear energy utility. The larger of the two is the Prairie Island plant located in Red Wing, MN, 1,049 MW, is owned and operated by Xcel Energy. Another plant, Monticello, has just under 600 MW of capacity. According to a report in the Minneapolis Star Tribune the plant is well on its way to getting a requested 20-year license extension from the NRC. A decision is expected by late 2010. What’s more, the state legislature is now thinking hard about removing the ban on new nuclear plants.
Sen. David Hann, R-Eden Prairie, author of a bill to repeal it, told the newspaper, "It defies logic, reason and science that Minnesota has a law on the books prohibiting new nuclear plants.”
The Tribune reported Rep. Bill Hilty, DFL-Finlayson, said that the Legislative Energy Commission, which he co-chairs, will hold a hearing in late March on proposals to remove the moratorium on new nuclear plants in Minnesota. The risks and benefits of nuclear power make it a complex issue, said Hilty, who said he remains open-minded. He told the Tribune . . .
"We need to air this out at least to the point that people get some hard facts, instead of doom and gloom or silver-bullet thinking about the issue."
Rick Lancaster, VP of Great River Energy, told the Tribune what’s new is the concern about climate change and the need to drastically reduce carbon dioxide emissions from power plants.
Lancaster said nuclear needs to be back on the table. Demand for electricity will increase, he said, and nuclear offers reliable power without producing greenhouse gases. However, like most smaller utilities, Great River is hedging its bets not wanting to commit to a major project without partners with very deep pockets.
“Great River has no plans to build a nuclear plant,” said Lancaster, but has been discussing it. "We have asked Xcel if they decide to build another nuclear plant to consider us as a possible partner," he said. "They said they'd be glad to keep us apprised."
A spokesman for Xcel (NYSE:XEL) said the firm has no near term plans to build a new nuclear power plant. The company operates in multiple states, but has a market cap of just under $8 billion which is not enough to go it alone on a new nuclear power plant.
It appears everyone in Wisconsin who wants to build a nuclear power plant is looking higher up on the financial food chain to get the ball rolling. Maybe they should look next door to see what’s happening in Minnesota?
Wisconsin re-visits an old debate
In Wisconsin, legislation is expected to be introduced that would strike the state's ban on construction of reactors as part of a broad plan to reduce greenhouse gases. Eric Callisto, chairman of the state Public Service Commission, predicts the legislature will soon open the door to building new nuclear power plants in Wisconsin.
Speaking at an energy conference held last week in Madison, WI, Callisto said the Assembly and Senate will enact the Governor’s Global Warming Task Force recommendations. He emphasize that includes modifying the language on the decades old moratorium on building nuke plants.
“It will be part of the package to reduce our carbon emissions,” said Callisto, who added that certain conditions would have to be met before the nuclear option could be considered.
Tia Nelson, (right) who co-chaired the task force disputed Callisto’s remarks. She told a business newspaper in Madison the task force didn't recommend lifting the moratorium. She went on to call nuclear energy a “distraction” from an agenda by green groups to focus on other strategies.
“It will happen only if stringent conditions are met,” she said. “I don’t believe nuclear plants are a near-term option. We should be pursuing the low-hanging fruit at this point, and that is conservation and energy efficiency. Right now, nuclear is a distraction.”
Ms. Nelson comes to her job from a long association with environmental causes. She is the daughter Wisconsin governor and US Senator Gaylord Nelson. In 1970 Senator Gaylord Nelson founded “Earth Day.”
Responded to Nelson, Callisto said at the conference he is "optimistic lawmakers will take it up and move this issue forward. Nuclear needs to be part of the solution.”
Former Assembly Speaker Mike Huebsch, R-West Salem, reportedly a longtime champion of nuclear energy, said he was pleased with Callisto’s comments.
“This is the first ray of sunlight in dealing with our need for power without adding to our greenhouse gas emissions,” Huebsch said. “There is nowhere else to go. Still, I’m concerned the moratorium will be lifted too late and that we’ll be 15 to 20 years behind.”
The task force report says new nuclear could be considered only if a set of conditions is met:
- recommended policies for conservation, efficiency and renewable energy are enacted;
- the PSC finds that a new nuclear power plant is “safe, economic and in the public interest;”
- the electricity is either generated by or sold to a Wisconsin utility; and
- the power is sold to electricity customers in the state.
Wisconsin's utilities say they have no plans to build more nuclear plants. However, utility executives have said nuclear power should be considered in the future. They reportedly have an option to join with the new Point Beach owner, FPL Group (NYSE:FPL), in construction of a future power plant next door to to Point Beach in Manitowoc County some 80 miles north of Milwaukee on Lake Michigan.
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