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Walz, Paulsen want to allow new nuclear plants

U.S. Rep. Tim Walz on Tuesday asked Minnesota legislators to overturn a nuclear power plant construction moratorium. Among those joining him were U.S. Rep. Erik Paulsen, center, and Harry Melander, Minnesota Building and Construction Trades Council executive secretary. Tribune photo by Don Davis

ST. PAUL -- A pair of congressmen came to the Minnesota Capitol Tuesday to tell state legislators they should overturn a nuclear power plant construction ban.

Minnesota U.S. Reps. Tim Walz, a Mankato Democrat, and Erik Paulsen, an Eden Prairie Republican, said nuclear power needs to be part of the electrical mix. They were joined by union leaders and Minnesota Chamber of Commerce representatives.

Walz said the Obama administration is serious about finding a solution to nuclear waste storage issues, the major roadblock to new nuclear plants.

The inability to add new nuclear plants gives power companies such as Xcel Energy, which owns two nuclear reactors near Red Wing and one near Monticello, no choice but to burn pollution-producing coal to make electricity, Walz said.

Federal energy legislation Paulsen, Walz and U.S. Rep. Collin Peterson, D-Minn., push would tackle the waste storage issue, which would help keep the Prairie Island and Monticello plants in operation, state Sen. Steve Murphy, DFL-Red Wing, said.

Murphy, a former Xcel employee, has been the strongest voice in favor of overturning the moratorium and managed to get his Senate colleagues to vote to do that this year. But a similar effort fell just short in the House and Rep. Joyce Peppin, R-Rogers, said she is not sure she has the votes yet, although she has seen evidence some opponents "are starting to rethink how they are voting."

Legislators put the moratorium in place in 1994 when it became apparent that the federal government was not close to opening a nuclear waste storage location. In the meantime, waste is stored in concrete casks near the nuclear plants.

Murphy said the country will need 50 percent more electrical power in the next 20 years and nuclear energy is the way to get it. While he said he also supports renewable energy, such a wind, a more consistent power also is needed, he added.

Farmers, especially, need more power, said state Senate Agriculture Chairman Jim Vickerman, DFL-Tracy. His son, for instance, has seven electrical motors running to dry grain.

"We don't have any choice," Vickerman said. "They turned down the coal plant."

A proposal was withdrawn this fall to build a major coal-fired electrical plant just inside South Dakota, prompting an increased push for nuclear power.

No power firm has suggested building a new Minnesota nuclear plant. And if one wants to, it could take 15 years to wade through governmental red tape and actually build the plant, Murphy said.

Walz said new rules and technology could shorten that time by several years.

The congressman, who serves all of extreme southern Minnesota, said he only has one goal in asking state lawmakers to rethink the moratorium: "Open this up for more possible solutions."

Don Davis
Don Davis has been the Forum Communications Minnesota Capitol Bureau chief since 2001, covering state government and politics for two dozen newspapers in the state. Don also blogs at Capital Chatter on Areavoices.