A notable shift in Minnesota energy policy won approval from the state House on Thursday, when lawmakers voted to dump a ban on construction of new nuclear power plants.
Supporters sold the bill as a conversation starter, not a full-bore effort to erect one or more nuclear plants in a state that presently has two. Since 1994, state regulators have been barred from issuing a nuclear plant certificate.
Approval and construction of a new plant would still be several years off if the bill gets approved. Republican Rep. Joyce Peppin, the measure's sponsor, said state businesses and homeowners need signals that adequate electricity is on the horizon beyond recent pushes for expanded solar and wind power.
"The wind only blows some of the time. The sun only shines some of the time," Peppin said. "These options just aren't reliable."
The bill approved on a bipartisan 81-50 vote must be reconciled with a differing Senate version before heading to Democratic Gov. Mark Dayton. He has laid out criteria for his approval, including protection for ratepayers and a clear plan for waste storage.
House Democrats failed to change the bill to prohibit power companies from charging energy users for costs for planning and construction until a plant is mostly operational.
"If the private capital markets aren't financing it, I believe it is risky enough where Minnesotans need protections in law moving forward with any new nuclear plants in Minnesota," said Rep. Kate Knuth of Mounds View.
Republicans countered that private financing can be hard to come by because nuclear plants attract lawsuits. Stopping utilities from recovering planning costs are tantamount to an extended moratorium, they said.
None of Minnesota's major power producers have given indications they'll propose new nuclear facilities.
The House did adopt one amendment, which satisfied a Dayton condition. The provision would disqualify applicants from required permits if they had plans to "reprocess spent fuel produced by the proposed plant into weapons-grade plutonium either at the plant or elsewhere in the state."
The 81 votes would not be enough to override a Dayton veto. The Senate version passed in early February on a strong bipartisan vote. Labor leaders and the business lobby are pushing for the bill's passage.