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Commentary: Open discussion about nuclear energy

Reliable and competitively priced electricity is critical to the economic vitality of Minnesota. Yet, the years of a generally friendly energy environment may well be numbered for business and residential customers alike. We must turn the tide by allowing Minnesota utilities the full range of choices for electricity generation -- including nuclear power.

This year, the Legislature should take a step in the right direction and remove Minnesota's outdated ban on nuclear energy. All options must be on the table as we try to build long-term economic vitality and, in particular, keep and create precious manufacturing jobs.

About a dozen states have some prohibition on nuclear power, and Minnesota's law is arguably the most stringent. Other states require measures such as a citizen referendum or supermajority vote of the legislature to proceed with new plants.

Minnesota has no existing legislative or regulatory auth-ority to build a new nuclear facility. In fact, by literal inter-pretation of the law, policy-makers cannot even have a serious conversation about nuclear power and expect anything to come from it, let alone make investments. It's time the state's energy policy emerges from the Dark Ages.

Nuclear power is a viable alternative for all the right reasons.

Nuclear power is clean. Min-nesota is a national leader in energy and the environment, and electricity generation with carbon-free emissions is one of the biggest goals of national and international climate change policies. Furthermore, nuclear industry jobs are am-ong the purest of "green jobs."

Nuclear power is safe. No American has ever died in a nuclear power plant in an accident attributable to radiation. The same cannot be said for other industries where workers are in sites with hazardous wastes.

Nuclear power is reliable. Minnesota's two plants at Monticello and Prairie Island in Red Wing, both of which are more than 30 years old, operate at capacity more than 90 percent of the time. This is more efficient than any other power source.

Nuclear power is cost competitive. Minnesota's two operating nuclear plants are our most cost-effective sources of power that is available 24/7. New plants will undoubtedly be more expensive than existing ones, but as new nuclear technology evolves, their value will become more evident -- even more so if Congress begins to regulate carbon dioxide emissions, as appears likely.

Nuclear power has broad public support. For example, in 2008, a poll by Zogby International showed 67 percent of Americans supporting nuclear power. The Minnesota Business Barometer Survey, a scientific survey of the statewide business community, reported 65-percent support. The public once again is ahead of its elected officials, moving beyond irrational fear of nuclear energy.

Let's be clear. Repealing the ban does not give immediate license to building another plant. It does, however, allow policy-makers to talk about and explore building more nuclear generation. Isn't it worth at least having the policy debate?

Planning, seeking regulatory approval and building generation facilities is a long and expensive process. Even if the moratorium were repealed tomorrow and a new plant proposed the next day, the first watt of electricity would probably not be gener-ated for at least a decade. Fu-rthermore, developing an initial blueprint to present for approval is in itself a huge in-vestment of time and money. No utility is willing to explore a plant in Minnesota under the existing circumstances.

While Minnesota stands still, other countries under-stand the merits of nuclear power. Witness the fact that Italy is negotiating with France for the purchase of nuclear power, and the Swe-dish government has endors-ed nuclear energy as a means to achieve lofty climate change goals.

A continued prohibition on even the consideration of additional nuclear power is a scary and dangerous econom-ic scenario for this state. Min-nesota is marching steadily toward a shortage of base-load electricity and will be in that predicament within a doz-en years by most estimates.

Minnesota is recognized as a national leader in progressive energy policy. It's time to take one more important step forward and place nuclear power on the menu of energy options.

David Olson is president of the Minnesota Chamber of Com-merce. Dick Anfang is presi-dent of the Minnesota State Building and Construction Trades Council.