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House votes down nuclear waste plan
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The Prairie Island nuclear power plant. (MPR file photo)
The Minnesota House has delivered a dramatic setback to plans for expanded nuclear waste storage at Xcel Energy's Prairie Island nuclear facility. Members voted 99-33 Thursday against the additional storage capacity, leaving the issue in legislative limbo with only four days left in the regular legislative session. Xcel officials say without extra storage space, the plant will need to shut down in 2007. But the House plan quickly unraveled just as it approached a final vote.

St. Paul, Minn. — Early Tuesday morning, Senate DFLers gave new hope to Xcel Energy by approving a plan that keeps the Prairie Island open, but funnels more money into development of renewable energy sources and preserves a legislative role in future nuclear debates.

House members had offered a competing version that, while also keeping the plant running, offers less funding for renewables and gives no explicit authority to future legislatures.

Throughout the session, the Minnesota chapters of the AFL-CIO and the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers have vigorously supported any plan to keep the plant open. But earlier this week, they shifted gears somewhat. While supporting the Senate version of the Prairie Island bill, the unions fell silent on the House option.

Rep. Torrey Westrom, R-Elbow Lake, is the chief author of the House plan. He says when union support evaporated, the deal collapsed.

"DFL caucus pressure to vote against the bill, plus the unions saying it's no big deal to us, Senate language is what we want -- news to me, last-minute news. To have this head-fake at the very end is what helped unravel the bill," Westrom says.

Westrom says the union's lack of support was a nod to DFL allies that they could side with environmentalists who oppose additional nuclear waste storage -- and that they could do so without fear of union retribution.

But Bill Heaney of the IBEW says that wasn't the case. Heaney says union members didn't have a clear idea of what the Westrom plan contained. And he says there was concern the House plan would impose too many costs and restrictions on Xcel, leading the company to reject the deal.

"Without a clear indication as to what the cost implications were, we didn't have any idea as to how to advise people what would be the best vote for preserving the jobs," says Heaney.

Xcel officials, however, reacted with surprise to that characterization. Spokeswoman Laura McCarten says the House bill in some ways was, from the company's perspective, preferable to the Senate version.

The Senate plan, for instance, requires legislative approval to keep the Prairie Island or the Monticello plants operating beyond their current federal licenses. The House version leaves those decisions with the Public Utilities Commission. McCarten says the company was comfortable with the Westrom bill.

"Creating a reasonable opportunity for extended operation of both power plants, not adding significant additional costs onto our customers, addressing some other issues that were important -- continuing investment in renewables, wind and other technologies -- so we thought overall that bill was shaping up to be very reasonable," McCarten says.

House Republicans have the opportunity to reconsider the measure -- and they say they'll discuss ways to resuscitate the bill. If they do move it off the floor, it must still be reconciled with the Senate plan.

Sen. Steve Murphy, DFL-Red Wing, is the chief author in the Senate. Murphy, who works for Xcel and is a member of the IBEW, says he remains confident lawmakers will find common ground.

"I think there was a hiccup in the system, and these things happen. It's discouraging, but, you know, we're going to keep moving ahead and keep working on this. And I'm sure that at the end of the day, the state of Minnesota is going to be a better place for it," says Murphy.

The regular legislative session ends at midnight on Monday. After that, a compromise yet this year would require a special legislative session.

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