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Filibuster stalls Prairie Island nuke bill
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Prairie Island's 17 nuclear waste storage casks are now full (File photo)
The Minnesota Legislature's regular session came to a close with a filibuster that blocked final action on expanding nuclear waste storage at Xcel Energy's Prairie Island plant. The power company is seeking to increase waste storage in order to keep the plant operating through the end of its current federal license in 2014. But a handful of Senate Democrats managed to stall action on a measure that they criticized as environmentally unsound.

St. Paul, Minn. — The Prairie Island debate appeared to be on track early Monday when the House voted 81-to-51 to resurrect the measure and send it on to the Senate for final approval. Environmental groups have been critical of the House version, arguing it lacked a strong committment to both the eventual phase-out of nuclear power and the development of renewable energy alternatives.

Throughout the day, however, the Senate failed to take up the House version. With less than an hour left before the mandatory adjournment time, DFLer Steve Murphy of Red Wing complained that Senate leaders were deliberately ignoring the Prairie Island issue.

In this bill we give Xcel everything. Greed prevails.
- Rep. Alice Hausman, DFL-St. Paul

"Members, I cannot stress the stress what is going on inside the body right now. We have waited all day long to vote on several of these bills, and now, at the last hour, we're going to have a filibuster," he said.

Murphy, whose district contains the Prairie Island plant and who works for Xcel, favored accepting the House approach rather than taking no action. He attempted to cut short the debate on a higher education funding bill so the body could take up the nuclear storage question.

That prompted a cascade of parliamentary maneuvers by enviromental advocates to run out the clock rather than accept the House plan. At one point, St. Paul DFLer Sandy Pappas motioned to adjourn until one minute before midnight.

The motion to adjourn failed, but other maneuvers successfully tied up floor action until the clock struck midnight.

Sen. Ellen Anderson, DFL-St. Paul, the chief author of a competing nuclear energy proposal, says her approach would keep the plant open for the next 10 years, but would require legislative approval to extend operation beyond that horizon. And Anderson says the House version she helped defeat was environmentally unsound.

"That calls coal renewable energy, that calls burning old tires renewable energy, that goes backwards on our committment to wind, that's what -- people are starting to understand that. But folks are so desperate to get this bill passed that they will do anything to do it," Anderson said.

Murphy, who championed the House option, declined to comment after the struggle. He silently emptied his desk despite the special legislative session that begins Tuesday.

Xcel officials also withheld comment. But Republican Mark Ourada of Buffalo, whose district includes Xcel's Monticello nuclear plant, was clearly frustrated by the parliamentary maneuvering. Ourada, who favors the House version of the bill, says the delay won't matter in the end.

"We introduce bills. Everything starts anew. I'm not sure Ellen Anderson is going to like what she sees any better next time, or others. You know, clearly we had the votes. I mean, we had the votes to pass a bill and we had the votes, probably, to pass it by a fair margin," Ourada said.

The House would allow the Public Utilities Commission to decide whether Prairie Island or Monticello could extend operations beyond their current licensure. If the Legislature failed to act, the PUC's decision would automatically stand.

Gov. Tim Pawlenty says he prefers the Senate approach, which requires affirmative action from lawmakers. But he says he was willing to accept either package.

"The House bill, particularly with respect to the legislative approval, minimally or barely meets my expectations. On that piece of it, the legislative approval process, I prefer the Senate version. But there's elements of each bill that I like," Pawlenty said.

Pawlenty says he expects the issue to re-emerge with the special session he's called for completing budget work. Xcel has said if a deal isn't reached, Prairie Island will have to close in 2007 and Monticello in 2010.

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