Minnesota’s Rich History in the Debate over Nuclear Energy

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John Tuma’s Capitol Update – The Pre-Session Version

Most Minnesotans think the nuclear debate in Minnesota began with the 1994 battle dealing with the storage of nuclear waste in dry casks at Prairie Island just outside of Red Wing. The essential result of that debate was the compromise allowing limited storage of nuclear waste in exchange for a moratorium on the construction of new facilities in the state.

There is now a concerted effort to seek repeal of this moratorium during the 2010 legislative session. Proponents of repealing the moratorium on constructing nuclear power plants want the public to believe it is a knee-jerk reaction unwisely foisted upon Minnesota policymakers by long-haired hippies who sprinkled pixie dust over the legislators to confuse them from the reality that nuclear energy is safe. What they want is for us to ignore the rich history and well thought out policymaking that Minnesota entered into regarding nuclear energy long before the 1994 Prairie Island controversy.

One central piece of history was the adoption of the Radioactive Waste Management Act by the Minnesota Legislature in 1977, some 17 years before the Prairie Island compromise.

In the early 1970’s, Minnesota became home to two nuclear power plants. In 1973, Northern States Power Company (NSP, now known as Xcel Energy) powered up its brand-new Prairie Island nuclear power plant just outside Red Wing. Prairie Island is on the Mississippi River and the site of an ancient traditional winter village of the Dakota Indians. In 1974, NSP opened its second plant just outside Monticello, Minnesota. These two plants were built in the optimistic days when the federal government promised it would take and store waste from nuclear power plants. As a result, these plants were designed with very little waste storage capacity.

Also in the 1970’s, Congress empowered the Department of Energy’s predecessor, the Energy Resource and Development Administration (ERDA), with the duty of beginning the siting of a new federal nuclear waste storage facility. This effort immediately entered into a highly politicized game of hot potato between those understanding the need for such a site somewhere in United States and those in Congress who were trying to make sure they did not end up with a hot potato nuclear site when the music stopped playing.

Long before Yucca Mountain in Nevada, the Midwest was considered a prime site for a future repository of high level and low level nuclear waste from power plants. The little secret that the “repeal the moratorium” advocates don’t want you to know is that Minnesota is still a possible repository for nuclear power plant waste, but more on that next week. 

In 1975, word slipped out that ERDA was focusing in on salt beds underneath the northeast corner of the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. Michigan quickly marshaled its political resources under the leadership of its governor, William Milliken, and Congressman Philip R. Ruppe to snuff out the attempt.

By 1976 information started to leak out that ERDA’s attention had shifted away from salt mines to stable ancient granite rock formations in Wisconsin. It was quickly learned that Minnesota had very similar ancient granite rock formations throughout the state. As a result, the Minnesota Legislature in 1977 sprang into action. Unlike the legislative sessions of gridlock and inaction we’ve become used to in the last decade, the legislatures of the 1970s proved to include some of the most respected policymakers in the nation. Remember this was the age of the “Good Life in Minnesota,” with the famed picture of Governor Wendell Anderson holding up that scrawny Northern on the front of Time magazine with a theme that we were “a state that works.”  Apparently catching a scrawny Northern while wearing an Elmer Fudd plaid shirt was an image of success back then.

The 1977 Legislature took up HF1215, a bill prohibiting the transportation and storage of radioactive waste in Minnesota which they titled the Radioactive Waste Management Act. The chief author in the Senate was Bill Luther from Brooklyn Center, serving in his first term and later to become a Congressman. The House author was Walter Hanson, a four term representative from St. Paul. He was joined by co-authors Willard Munger and a third term House member from Minneapolis by the name of Phyllis Kahn.

The Radioactive Waste Management Act specifically prohibited the construction or operation of a radioactive waste management facility within Minnesota unless specifically authorized by the Minnesota Legislature. On May 9, 1977, the Minnesota House unanimously passed HF1215.  On May 20, 1977, the Minnesota Senate took up floor debate on the bill. Senator Pillsbury (yes, of the famed milling family that brought us the Pillsbury doughboy) moved to strike the language prohibiting the construction of a radioactive waste facility unless the Legislature approved its construction. Senator Pillsbury’s motion failed because he could only convince seven other colleagues to join him. The Senate went on to overwhelmingly support passage of HF1215 by a vote of 41 to 16. The bill was signed into law by Governor Rudy Perpich as Chapter 416 and codified in section 116C of the Minnesota Statutes. This was Perpich’s first session after becoming governor from his post as lieutenant governor upon the resignation of Wendell Anderson. One of Perpich’s first acts as governor was the appointment of Wendell Anderson as a U.S. Senator to finish the term of the new vice president of United States, former Minnesota Senator Walter Mondale.

In the 1980’s, the Department of Energy did identify three possible locations within Minnesota for permanent storage of nuclear waste from power plants, but those efforts never came to a final proposal which would have challenged whether the Radioactive Waste Management Act law was constitutional. The prohibition of the permanent storage of radioactive waste in Minnesota would not become an issue until 1991, when Northern States Power filed a certificate of need with the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission for additional “temporary” storage of nuclear waste in dry casks outside of its Prairie Island power plant. The promised federal repository that Northern States Power was relying on back in the 1970s when it built its nuclear power plants with little storage was still only a concept in the early 1990s. They argued that Minnesota’s Radioactive Waste Management Act did not apply to “temporary” storage. 

More on the role of Radioactive Waste Management Act in the Prairie Island debate next week.

Click here to see the Time magazine cover of former Governor Wendell Anderson.

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