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Senate approves Prairie Island nuke storage bill
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Sen. Steve Murphy, DFL-Red Wing describes the Prairie Island bill during floor debate in the Senate on Friday afternoon. (Senate Television)
The Minnesota Senate has approved a plan that extends nuclear waste storage at Xcel Energy's Prairie Island plant. The proposal is meant to keep the facility operating through 2014, but has run into objections from environmental advocates. Critics say it lacks a strong commitment to renewable energy alternatives and provides no explicit role for lawmakers in future nuclear waste storage debates.

St. Paul, Minn. — One contentious point was quickly settled. Virtually all lawmakers accepted that Prairie Island will be granted additional nuclear waste storage capacity, keeping it open for at least another 10 years or so. But the key disagreement in the debate revolved around who would have authority to approve storage beyond that point.

Sen. Ellen Anderson, DFL-St. Paul, has been strongly advocating that any future decisions must be ratified by the Legislature. But several amendments designed to ensure that position were defeated today. As the bill stands now, lawmakers have a right to weigh in on future decisions, but aren't required to do so. That gives a significant amount of authority to the state's five-member Public Utility Commission.

Nuclear power advocates say that the debate at the Capitol has historically been highly emotional and unnecessarily political. They can point, for example, to the 1994 debate that originally authorized dry cask storage at Prairie Island, not to mention a rare filibuster earlier this week that temporarily stalled this year's bill. So, they say injecting the Legislature directly into the process creates too much uncertainty and makes it difficult to plan a long-range energy strategy.

The PUC, they say, has the expertise to make a technical, needs-based decision on nuclear power without political pressure.

For the most part the Senate and House versions of the bill are compatible. There have been several amendments that are mostly technical or non-controversial. One significant change altered incentives for a coal-powered plant proposed for the Iron Range. The plant is expected to have significantly fewer emissions than current coal-burning technologies. As a result, the House bill would allow a portion of that power to fulfill renewable energy objectives.

Gov. Tim Pawlenty, however, sent a letter around to lawmakers saying he opposed that provision, fearing it would allow a coal plant to displace true renewable sources like wind power. So, the Senate has taken a slightly different approach. Rather than let the Iron Range plant replace a portion of the state's renewable energy objectives, its production would come on top of those goals.

While it doesn't allow the coal plant to dilute the renewable energy objective, the bill also backs down on a previous plan to strengthen those objectives, particularly where wind is concerned. So it's not clear if environmental groups will consider that much of a victory.

They appear pleased, however, that both the House and the Senate have rejected a proposal to treat a tire-burning plant as a renewable energy facility.

With Senate approval, the bill now will be returned to the House where it could be reconsidered as early as tomorrow. Then it goes to the governor. Gov. Tim Pawlenty has said before that he would prefer to have the direct legislative oversight that's been beaten back several times today. But he's also said he considers the current version of the bill to be "minimally acceptable." And it appears likely he'll sign the measure.

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