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Lawmakers consider nuke power policy

ST. PAUL -- Nuclear power plants either are the answer to the country's power and environmental problems or they create worse problems. That is the range of opinions state legislators face as they consider whether to alter state laws dealing with...

ST. PAUL -- Nuclear power plants either are the answer to the country's power and environmental problems or they create worse problems.

That is the range of opinions state legislators face as they consider whether to alter state laws dealing with nuclear plants. While a Senate committee held meetings on the matter this week and the House energy chairman promises hearings before lawmakers adjourn on May 21, it is not clear whether anything actually will happen this year.

Sen. Steve Murphy, DFL-Red Wing, has two bills that would lift a Minnesota moratorium on building new nuclear plants. He also wants the state to study the cost and other factors involving nuclear and other power options, such as coal-powered plants.

"In the future, we are going to need many more megawatts of electricity," Murphy told a Senate energy committee Thursday.

On the other side of the issue, Lee Foushee of the University of Minnesota said nuclear plants and radioactive waste emit dangerous gases and liquids.

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"We are poisoning the next seven generations of our children and we cannot continue this," she said.

Xcel's Jim Alders said lawmakers need to make decisions soon so his company can upgrade its plants to keep them safe and economical. Xcel plans to invest $1.5 billion in the Prairie Island facility near Red Wing and $645 million at Monticello, in central Minnesota.

Senate Energy Committee Chairwoman Yvonne Prettner Solon, DFL-Duluth, said she thinks lawmakers should not allow more nuclear plants until Xcel or another energy company says it is ready to build one. Xcel has not said it wants a new plant, just that it wants to extend the life of the state's only two plants.

Xcel serves customers across Minnesota, Wisconsin, South Dakota and North Dakota. About 26 percent of its power comes from nuclear energy, following 44 percent of electricity coming from fossil fuels such as coal and natural gas.

How lawmakers decide the issue will affect customer's rates.

"The only stigma of nuclear power" is the waste it leaves behind, added Murphy, an employee of Xcel Energy, which owns both of the state's nuclear power plants.

Sen. Gary Kubly, DFL-Granite Falls, has bills that would begin a phase-out of the Monticello facility and forbid more nuclear waste to be stored at the plant.

The biggest issue is what to do with spent nuclear material stored next to the reactors.

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"Until the storage problem is solved, we believe it is irresponsible to consider building new nuclear plants anywhere in this country - especially in Minnesota," Ron Johnson told the Senate committee.

Johnson, vice president of the Prairie Island Indian Community near Red Wing, said many tribal members live within a few hundred yards of the nuclear plant and the waste. "We are also troubled by lack of local involvement in advancing a storage solution for the nation's nuclear waste."

Murphy said that eventually Xcel and companies that store nuclear waste in 38 other states need to recycle the material.

Don Davis works for Forum Communications Co., which owns the Bemidji Pioneer.

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