DULUTH -- The notion of bringing a new generation nuclear power plant to the Iron Range made it to the floor of the Minnesota Senate last week.
Sen. Jason Rarick, R-Pine City, floated the idea during floor discussion of a wide-ranging energy and commerce bill. He cited the existence of power infrastructure already in place to serve taconite iron ore mines.
“One of the potentials is that where we have the heavy-industry users, like our mines, bringing one of those (nuclear) cells to that location, and we don’t have to worry about the big transmission lines any more,” Rarick said. “That power can be produced for them right there.”
The idea “horrified” Sen. Ann Johnson Stewart, DFL-Plymouth, who spoke after Rarick.
“I really don’t know where to start after those remarks,” she said. “I’m horrified at the thought of a nuclear plant in our mining area. It’s bad enough we’re talking about copper-sulfide mining, and I just can’t even imagine step one of proposing a permit for a small nuclear plant in our northern region.”
Forum News Service spoke with the lawmakers in the days following last Wednesday’s floor session, during which Rarick and other Republicans insisted the state maintain a base load of energy they say is beyond what renewables such as wind and solar energy can provide.
“We know we’re moving away from coal,” Rarick said. “If we want to move away from natural gas, too, right now nuclear seems to be the one option that’s carbon-free and still consistent and reliable.”
Senate Republicans succeeded in passing the omnibus bill, and included the removal of the state’s prohibition on issuing certificates of need for new nuclear power plants.
But Johnson Stewart said it was far-fetched to think the Democratic-controlled state house and Gov. Tim Walz would agree to lifting the prohibition as well.
“It’s not reasonable that we could ever get nuclear up near anywhere we mine in northern Minnesota,” Johnson Stewart said. “The safety, efficiency and economy of solar and wind are at a place where I personally would choose to explore those carbon-free methods of providing energy before we lift the moratorium on nuclear.”
Further dependence on those renewable energy sources will require new frontiers of power storage.
“Are we going to develop massive storage for our renewable energy resources and use rare earth minerals?” Sen. Michelle Benson, R-Ham Lake, said during the floor session. “Nobody seems to want to dig things out of the earth and turn it into batteries, but everybody wants storage for our renewable (energy). So if we’re going to have base-load backup, nuclear has to be part of the conversation.”
Last decade brought the United States' most recent nuclear power plant into Tennessee, but the country is decommissioning more nuclear plants than it currently expects to build. Disasters at nuclear plants in Russia and Japan have curbed desire to harness nuclear power. But Rarick notes technological advancements.
“One of those technologies is small-cell nuclear, very similar to what we have in naval submarines and aircraft carriers,” he told Forum News Service.
He said the current moratorium denies state departments and officials from even discussing the possibilities. He also cited cultural differences in Russia and Japan as precipitating their historic nuclear reactor meltdowns. That wouldn’t happen in the United States, he said.
“Those were both in areas where in their cultures they didn’t want to admit any problems and let things go,” Rarick said. “We do not have that same culture here. When there starts to be problems, shutdown happens immediately. There’s always the potential that would happen, I know, but we have so many safety measures in place the likelihood is so small.”
Rarick reiterated something he said on the Senate floor — that the state will never again authorize the nuclear reactors already found in Monticello and Prairie Island.
“Those two facilities that we have, I don’t want to see them shut down early,” he said. “They provide us that base load we absolutely need. What intrigues me is the new technology around nuclear and the potential that there is.”
He doesn’t expect a new nuclear plant to be built any time in the near future. But the moratorium prohibits state officials and departments from talking with companies and experts about what’s possible, he said.
“Those are the discussions we have to start having,” Rarick said on the Senate floor.
Rarick was asked why he chose the Iron Range to locate a hypothetical nuclear plant.
“Transmitting electric power to where it’s needed a lot of times adds quite a bit of cost,” he said. “Our mines, paper mills and a lot of industry are very large electricity users. … If small-cell nuclear (power) is brought to the site, you save all of that infrastructure cost in getting electricity there.”
Johnson Stewart remained ardently opposed during the floor discussion.
“When we say small-cell nuclear, it is by no means small,” she said. “Typical small-cell costs about $10 billion.”