Some Good Agitation for Our State’s Nuclear Energy Policy

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John Tuma’s Capitol Update – March 5, 2010

“I think the agitation that I made on the matter contributed much to the discontinuance by the government of the pernicious practice”
-General Christopher C. Andrews, 1902

Of my favorite of the many Civil War portraits that adorn the Capitol is the one just above the receptionist desk in the Governor’s Office portraying the Minnesota Third Infantry marching into Little Rock, Arkansas.The painting shows an exhausted drummer boy peaceably staggering up the road into Little Rock with the remainder of the victorious Minnesotans stretched out in the background coming up from the Arkansas River.  Riding tall in the saddle in the lead of this majestic yet exhausted column is the commander of the Minnesota Third, Christopher C. Andrews.

During the Civil War, Andrews distinguished himself as commander of the Minnesota Third.  In one of the most successful campaigns in the western theater, Andrews’ Third successfully marched on the Arkansas capitol of Little Rock.  Along with several other units under General Frederick Steele, they undertook a 100-mile march in the sweltering southern heat of August.  Despite being plagued by debilitating sickness, the Minnesota Third participated in one of the most renowned outmaneuverings of the Confederate Army to capture Little Rock against a well-entrenched opposition with only minor casualties.  Andrews and the Minnesota Third remained on as the occupying force of Little Rock, where Andrews gained renown as a fair and benevolent commander later to be mustered out as a major general.

After the war, Andrews served with distinction as a diplomat for the United States to such countries as Norway, Sweden and Brazil.  When he returned to Minnesota in the 1880s, General Andrews became one of the leading, if not prophetic, voices for reform in our forestry practices.  He preached against clear cutting and advocated for sound conservation practices he observed in Scandinavian countries.  In the wake of the 1894 great Hinckley forest fire, he pushed for a scientifically driven state forestry post.  The State Legislature, under the pressure of this great tragedy, needed to act but was still controlled by the lumber industry.  Instead of a state forestry post as advocated by Andrews, they created the post of Chief Fire Warden.  Not to be outmaneuvered, the wily General outflanked the State Legislature and successfully pushed for his appointment to the position.  Starting at age 65, he transformed this position over the next 27 years into a dominating force for forest conservation and sustainable management. 

As quoted above, it was his persistent agitation that led to the discontinuance of very destructive forest practices by the government and made Minnesota a leader in forest land management.  He never stopped pressing the concept of forestry protection until his death in 1922 at the age of 92.  He truly gave vision to sustainable forests for Minnesota. The State honored him by naming a state forest after him just outside of Willow River.

The big issue at the Capitol this week was not forest sustainability, but the future of nuclear energy in our state.  General Andrews, as a great leader for safe and sustainable forests, would have been proud of the actions by the Senate Committee on Energy, Utilities, Technology and Communications in setting a course for a safe and sustainable energy policy for the state of Minnesota.  The General would have been particularly proud of the leadership shown by Senator John Doll (DFL-Burnsville) and Chairwoman Yvonne Prettner-Solon (DFL-Duluth).  Just like the General’s clear and decisive actions in Little Rock, they refused to be outmaneuvered by the pro-nuclear forces in their pursuit of good energy policy in Minnesota.

Our recent battle over expanding nuclear power began last year with a surprise amendment that was offered to an energy bill on the Senate floor to repeal the moratorium on the construction of new nuclear reactors in Minnesota.  The moratorium was adopted in 1994 as part of the resolution over the “temporary” storage of nuclear waste in casks outside the Prairie Island plant near Red Wing.  The wise decision by the 1994 Legislature was that a moratorium made sense until permanent storage was found by the federal government for our nuclear waste.  The ‘94 Legislature understood it was a total lack of stewardship to create more of this dangerous waste for future generations to clean up until we resolved the problems of disposing of the waste produced by our state’s two existing nuclear reactors.

The nuclear issue had remained dormant for several years until recently.  There is a national effort to bring back nuclear reactors as a source of energy generation despite the fact that we still have not resolved the question of nuclear waste storage.  One of the focuses of this new “Nuclear Renaissance,” as it has become known, is to go to states that have moratoriums on the construction of new reactors and seek repeal of these moratoriums.  Last year’s floor amendment in the Senate came as a surprise to the environmental community, but fortunately the House wisely rejected this preemptive strike by the pro-nuclear forces last year.

Unfortunately, they have come back again this year with a vengeance. They argue the moratorium takes a possible viable option off the table and does not allow us to discuss the matter.  The chair of the Senate Committee on Energy, Utilities, Technology and Communications, Senator Prettner-Solon, promised to have those discussions and a vote of the moratorium repeal bill in her committee to hopefully avoid another surprise amendment on the floor.  It is through the normal committee process that the Legislature has their full and complete discussion on an issue.

The promised hearings on the nuclear moratorium occurred this week.  There was an information hearing held on Tuesday and on Thursday, as promised, the committee gave full consideration to HF355 authored by Senator Amy Koch (R-Buffalo) in preparation for a vote.  It was quite evident that the pro-nuclear forces were overconfident because a majority of the committee had voted last year for the repeal of the moratorium on the Senate floor.  After excellent presentations by our team members of Steve Morse, executive director for MEP, and Lisa Ledwidge with the Institute for Energy and Environmental Research (IEER), the committee realized a straight repeal was an unwise state policy that would leave our ratepayers exposed to excessive costs and our state with no permanent waste storage solution.

It was Senator Doll who put together an amendment allowing for the repeal to go through but with clear restrictions placed on future nuclear facilities in the state.  The major focus was to ensure safe operation, require the permanent storage of waste generated, and protect ratepayers from past practices of the nuclear industry that shifted costs of construction to consumers long before a reactor produces any power.  When Senator Doll’s amendment was overwhelmingly adopted by the committee on a 9-6 vote, the bill’s author essentially withdrew her bill from consideration.  Apparently the pro-nuclear forces really didn’t want a discussion when the subject was nuclear safety, permanent storage or ratepayer protections.

This is a major victory for the environmental community, but the battle is not over.  Even though the bill was withdrawn from consideration, there is a possibility that the pro-nuclear forces will again try to avoid the full discussion of the committee process and have the moratorium repeal amended to another bill on the floor.  Fortunately, the overwhelming passage of the Doll amendment sets a clear Senate committee position.  Therefore, if the pro-nuclear forces try to amend their provision onto a bill in the future, they will likely see an amendment to their amendment that looks very similar to the one overwhelmingly approved in the committee this week.

The senators who supported the Doll amendment in committee were: Ellen Anderson (DFL-St. Paul), Jim Carlson (DFL-Eagan), Kevin Dahle (DFL-Northfield), Scott Dibble (DFL-Minneapolis), John Doll, Rick Olseen (DFL-Harris), Chair Prettner-Solon, Sandy Rummel (DFL-White Bear Lake), and Kathy Sheran (DFL-Mankato).  Those opposing the amendment in committee were Michael Jungbauer (R-East Bethel), Koch, Julie Rosen (R-Fairmont), Dave Senjem (R-Rochester), Dan Sparks (DFL-Austin) and Ray Vandeveer (R-Forest Lake).  I think they will have a hard time explaining to their constituents why they are okay with long-term nuclear storage at temporary sites in Minnesota and the fact that they think ratepayers, rather than utility investors, should take the risk for the construction of nuclear plants.

Other states have gone down this unwise road of nuclear expansion and have regretted adopting a pro-nuclear policy.  We are very fortunate to have senators who, like General Andrews, were willing to agitate on the matter of waste storage and ratepayer protection so that Minnesota did not adopt this same “pernicious practice.”

There is plenty of activity occurring at the Capitol on other issues of concern to the environmental community, including the budget and mining.  Stay tuned next week as we cover some of those issues as they develop at the Capitol.

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