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Nuclear at a Crossroads: Does nuclear power stand a chance in Minnesota amid a moratorium and carbon-free mandate?

Minnesota politicians ponder the fate of the ‘friendly atom’

Nuclear at a Crossroads: Does nuclear power stand a chance in Minnesota amid a moratorium and carbon-free mandate?
Illustration of two workers in a control room at a nuclear generating station. (Andi Lynn Arnold for Project Optimist)

The DFL-led Legislature and Gov. Tim Walz made national news earlier this year by announcing that all Minnesota energy utilities have 17 years to fully decarbonize.

By 2040, all of the state's power must come from carbon-free sources. Solar, hydro, and wind generation are being deployed at break-neck speed, but there's one black sheep in the carbon-free family: nuclear power, the fissioning of uranium atoms to create heat that ultimately turns a steam turbine and produces electricity.

Minnesota was the site of one of the country's first rural atomic plants. In 1969 the state stirred national debate with an attempt to set new, state-specific regulations, inciting, at least in part, the abolition of the Atomic Energy Commission.

By the mid 1970s three reactors at two sites were pouring out a potential 1.5-gigawatts electrical of nuclear power. Built by Northern States Power — today Xcel Energy — the plants offered the equivalent output of roughly 4.5 million solar panels or enough electricity to power approximately 1.3 million homes. Those same reactors still fracture atoms today and account for nearly a quarter of the state's energy generation.

But since those original facilities opened? Nothing. New nuclear development has stalled locally, as it largely has nationally.

In 1994, lawmakers placed a statewide moratorium on new construction of nuclear power, controversy chased the existing facilities, and several national and international incidents seemed to seal the fate of the "friendly atom."

Nuclear power is more than a political minefield. Entire careers have been made advocating for and against fission energy. Nuclear is a carbon-free energy source but produces radioactive waste (spent fuel) that can output high levels of radiation for thousands of years. It’s a consistent and reliable energy source, but a handful of historic failures have been so catastrophic that entire countries have abandoned their atomic ambitions. It’s an energy source with fuel so affordable that spent fuel is discarded with more than 90% of its energy remaining, and yet the cost of operating a new nuclear facility is beyond nearly every other form of electricity production. 

And it’s an issue that goes beyond party lines. In this story, we’ll look at the people and politics driving nuclear policy in Minnesota and whether or not the technology might make a comeback in light of carbon-free mandates. Nuclear has had a bad rap, but renewable sources don’t produce a consistent flow of power on their own. Utility leaders argue something needs to fill the role of base load power generation.

Should we brace for a nuclear renaissance?

A champion for nuclear

Sen. Andrew Mathews thinks so. The Princeton Republican may well be the face of pro-nuclear policy in Minnesota. His district includes the city of Becker where Xcel Energy has announced plans to shutter their now 47-year-old coal plant by 2030. Although the company is developing a 460-megawatt solar plant, Mathews and others are concerned about an impending loss of jobs and tax revenue.

The young senator is eyeing the potential of new nuclear technologies and advanced reactor design — especially Small Modular Reactors, a nascent development intended to offer a more assembly line approach to reactor construction and much smaller facilities — that might plug into the existing infrastructure left behind by the Sherburne County (Sherco) coal plant.

Mathews also serves as the ranking minority member of the Senate Energy, Utilities, Environment, and Climate Committee.

Rather than fight dissenting Republicans and the majority DFL party over a full repeal of the state's moratorium, he's introduced a "carve-out" amendment to the moratorium that would permit development of reactors under 300 megawatts (the state's current reactors have individual capacities of approximately 550 megawatts) while still being required to adhere to all of the usual licensing and regulations.

The amendment was included in this year's Energy Omnibus Bill but failed to proceed beyond the Senate, lacking support, he said, with the House and Walz. There'll be a second chance next year, but it will require building bridges with fence-sitting conservatives and within the DFL party.

"Whether it's 100 degrees or 30-below — or dark of night, or bright summer day — you're going to get about the same amount of energy generated around the clock [with nuclear], which is not a feature of a lot of other renewable or clean forms of energy," Mathews said.

He's watched for years as utility companies unveil their annual plans, always emphasizing closures of carbon-heavy coal plants but rarely highlighting new construction. The pattern can't continue forever. "Otherwise you're going to run into a math problem," he joked.

Despite his enthusiasm, the state's history with nuclear power has been rife with controversy — especially the location of the Prairie Island reactors, which border on Native land belonging to the Prairie Island Indian Community. A federal failure to create a national nuclear waste repository ultimately resulted in dry cask storage of nuclear waste at the Prairie Island site, elevating tensions and raising concerns about long-term side effects of potential radiation exposure.

"I know that's a touchy subject at Prairie Island. Of course, nobody wants to have any kind of leak or disaster," Mathews said. "I am in no way advocating to put more of these facilities on tribal lands against their will. That's not my position at all."

But for a region like Becker, assuming a willing community, maybe nuclear is a natural fit?

"I'm an all-of-the-above guy. Let's have all of the tools in the toolbox," Mathews said. "I am not anti-solar and anti-wind. It can be part of the puzzle — how much of the puzzle do we want to rely on that?"

He’s got one partner across the aisle already: Sen. Nick Frentz, of Mankato, the DFL chair of the Senate Energy, Utilities, Environment, and Climate Committee. Although they disagree on a few of the finer points.

"I said, 'If you're willing to store the nuclear waste in your district, Mathews, we can move this right along,'" Frentz said. "[Mathews] was not willing; to which I would say, 'Everybody wants to go to heaven, nobody wants to die.'"

Sen. Andrew Mathews, R-Princeton, and Sen. Nick Frentz, D-Mankato

Unlikely allies

Frentz, a lawyer in his "secret, other life" and a polished speaker, has been an unlikely ally in the move toward shifting the state's nuclear policy.

"I think the better policy is to support it, to study advanced modular nuclear — and especially in light of our need to decarbonize," he said. "Regardless of what you see as nuclear['s risks] — the risks of failure, the waste issues — you must elevate it as an energy source opportunity when decarbonizing is your top goal. It's a carbon-free source."

Legislators opted not to include the carve-out amendment and a second bill by Mathews funding a study into the potential application of advanced nuclear technologies in Minnesota as part of this session's omnibus bill. Frentz, who offered his support within the Senate,  cites a lack of support in the House.

"That's a political question," Frentz said, when asked whether a change in nuclear power policy stands any chance of succeeding. "It'll continue to have the support of the Energy, Utility, Environment, and Climate chair. That seems to suggest that it will get into committee, get into the omnibus bill and get into the conference committee as long as I'm hanging around."

Frentz’s counterparts in the House agree on the need to decarbonize but in general disapprove of nuclear as part of the path forward, he said. Frentz, however, is quick to endorse Mathew's bill to allocate funds for a state-specific independent study. Pointing to reversals of other statewide moratoriums underway in states like Illinois and active nuclear development around the world, Frentz believes the time is right.

Given the anticipated $65.2 billion state budget for the 2026-2027 biennium, "$300,000 to study a critical issue seems like a reasonable use of taxpayer money," he said, noting that utilities will need several years to plan and construct new facilities, should the moratorium be amended or repealed. "What are you afraid the study's going to show? And what is your pathway to this decarbonizing we claim is so urgent?"

Frentz believes the state's 2040 mandate will spur innovation and ultimately be a success. For Minnesota to ignore nuclear would be presumptive.

"We must be much, much smarter than all these other humans to know that we don't even want to look at it — and I don't think we are," Frentz said.

Footing the bill

Historically, much of the opposition lies within Frentz's own party — a fact Mathews is quick to point out. The state's longest-serving member of the Senate, Sen. John Marty, represents that party line and was there when the moratorium was put into place.

"Why does the moratorium bother us?" asked the Roseville Democrat.

Marty remembers only 12 years ago when a push was made (and abandoned ) to repeal the moratorium for reasons of protecting the environment.

"The bill was flying right along. And then Fukushima happened, and it just disappeared," Marty said. Environmental and health risks notwithstanding, before he would vote for any amendment or repeal, Marty insists that nuclear facility construction be funded in a traditional way, with investors and the utility fronting capital upfront, rather than billing ratepayers to recover expenses.

"If we're going to do it, fund it the way we fund coal plants and solar plants and other projects. They build them. They take the risk. And we pay for the power we buy,” Marty said. “But the proponents of repealing the moratorium never wanted that."

For precedent, Marty refers to the Tyrone Energy Park, a failed nuclear project and joint venture of four electric utilities — including Northern States Power — to develop a nuclear plant in western Wisconsin in the late 1970s. The project was bogged down during the planning process, and in July of 1979 the companies responsible issued a press release explaining that it would no longer be possible to have the facility licensed in time to construct the plant by their 1986 deadline.

The losses, estimated at $80 million for Northern States Power, were a write-off amortized over five years.

"NSP is a highly-regulated company in which the financial benefits of successful operation are passed on to customers in their electric rates," a spokesperson for the company wrote announcing the plant's cancellation. "It is appropriate to pass on Tyrone losses since they were incurred in good faith through prudent activities. [...] Overall, the write-off would amount to about $3.80 annually for the typical Minnesota residential customer over the five-year period."

At the time, the alternative called for construction of two coal plants to fill the gap, but ultimately the land in question was sold to the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources and a private trust known as Landmark Conservancy for a combined $3.3 million.

Failed plants and budget overruns have dogged the nuclear power industry. Marty remembers promises decades ago that one day nuclear power would be "penny cheap — too cheap to meter," but said that hasn't borne fruit. 

A 2020 Lazard study estimated the Levelized Cost of Energy for nuclear power at as much as $198 per megawatt hour — nearly four times the highest cost estimates of wind power and utility-scale solar. (Levelized Cost of Energy measures lifetime costs divided by energy production.)

And to emergent technologies like advanced and modular reactors — or the long-awaited promise of nuclear fusion — Marty is more than happy to take a "wait and see" approach, describing himself as hopeful but skeptical.

"If this is so close to happening, I can guarantee you the day they come up with some breakthrough, Xcel Energy is going to be saying, 'We want this!' and Xcel will have the power to pass it through the Legislature, I'd guess," Marty said. "This [moratorium] is not a barrier to anything they say they need or want to do."

Sen. John Marty, D-Roseville, and Sen. Jim Abeler, R-Anoka

A controversial opinion

Sen. Jim Abeler is a Republican lawmaker with an unusual distinction in this debate. In 2021, Abeler was the only Republican in the Senate to vote in favor of a bill continuing the nuclear moratorium, with further stipulations that it not be repealed until known shortcomings (predominantly nuclear waste management) could be addressed.

A chiropractor by trade whose district includes the suburbs of Anoka and Coon Rapids, Abeler has experience with and a "healthy respect" for radiation, saying he has always minimized the use of X-rays for his clients and today no longer operates an X-ray machine. He also uses his personal cell phone exclusively with a wired headset, after noticing recurring headaches otherwise. His wife chides him for carrying around a rat's nest of tangled cables, but he feels better without the cellular radiation and cites a Swedish study on cell phone radiation that corroborates his experience.

With nuclear power, he worries about the unknown side effects of long-term, low-level radiation exposure through gradual (or sudden and catastrophic) release into the environment.

"I don't have one ally in the discussion," Abeler said. "On the Democrat side, it's some kind of evil thing — and I'm not that guy; I'm just concerned about the health effects."

Earlier this year, Abeler was also the only Republican senator to vote in favor of this session's Climate, Energy, and Environment Omnibus Bill and has frequently stood apart or alone from his party's line. Yet he still has doubts about the state’s carbon-free goals. 

"For one thing, I think 2040 is a comical goal. It's unrealistic. It's a bumper sticker," Abeler said. "The kids in the hallway were all excited. The people running this are good people, but they're not really connected to the operational side of it."

Illustration of transmission lines (Andi Lynn Arnold for Project Optimist)

More questions than answers

Minnesota's nuclear power moratorium is nearly 30 years old, while the state's fission plants celebrate their 50th birthdays. The amendment by Mathews allowing for smaller, modular nuclear facilities, as well as the proposed study into advanced nuclear technologies, will likely reappear next year, but it's clear there's a long road ahead.

Although both Mathews and Frentz point to objections from the House of Representatives and possibly the governor's office as the remaining hurdle, a hard-won comment from the governor's staff suggests tempered support — at least for further study.

The following quote took nearly two months to procure as the governor and lieutenant governor's staff ignored requests from Project Optimist for a brief interview on nuclear policy, redirecting us repeatedly to other departments. A spokeswoman for the Walz administration eventually sent the statement:

"The governor supports further study of emerging nuclear technology. He publicly supported legislation to do so, while raising questions about nuclear waste storage."

The Department of Commerce offered the following: "Nuclear energy continues to be one of the energy resources that will help transition Minnesota to carbon-free energy resources. The law gives utilities the planning time and flexibility to reach 100% carbon-free, while maintaining reliable and affordable electricity for all of Minnesota."

Still, the path forward will involve more than politics and the bureaucracy of state government. Questions about the environment, the future, and large-scale deployment of any developing technology will require the buy-in of the voting public, utilities operators, and advocates on all sides of the issue. 

*This story was updated on September 15 to correct an error about the start of Minnesota's nuclear energy program. Elk River was home to an early nuclear plant that was converted into a waste-to-energy station. Project Optimist apologizes for the error.

Look for our next story in this "Nuclear at a Crossroads" series to learn about how nuclear is seen as a carbon-free energy solution in parts of Canada and Europe. The series also includes a history of major nuclear disasters, a look back the early development in the state, and a look forward at emerging nuclear technology.

Project Optimist will also hold a community conversation about nuclear power via Zoom at the end of the series. Stay tuned for dates. We hope you will join us.

If you wish to run this story in your publication, email nora@theoptimist.mn for permissions.

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