Should Minnesota end moratorium on building nuclear power plants?

April 2, 2011

Eye on Faith and Science

Bills to end the moratorium on nuclear power plant construction (HF 9 and SF 4) were introduced at the start of this year’s legislative session by Rep. Joyce Peppin (R-Rogers) and Sen. Amy Koch (R-Buffalo). The House and Senate passed different versions of the bill in February, and a House-Senate conference committee was appointed to work out the differences.

Proponents say lifting the moratorium is necessary for the state to consider all options for its energy needs. That, however, was before the nuclear plant disaster in Japan raised new questions about the future of nuclear power.

In Minnesota, which has nuclear power plants in Monticello and Prairie Island, the concerns are mostly focused on the waste such facilities produce.

Gov. Mark Dayton has said he would sign a bill lifting the state moratorium that has been in place since 1994 only if certain conditions are met, including the establishment of a national nuclear waste storage location — something that doesn’t exist at this time.

I remember hearing those concerns when I was a reporter with the St. Cloud Visitor in the mid-1990s, when Northern States Power (which later became part of Xcel Energy) wanted to build 17 steel casks at its Prairie Island plant to store spent nuclear fuel rods until a national nuclear disposal site was opened.

When I visited the area for a story at the time, some residents felt the cask storage would be safe. They had greater fears about the economic impact on the area if the plant ran out of space and had to shut down. Others — including the adjacent Prairie Island Indian Community — felt that accommodating more nuclear waste posed an added threat to residents and the environment.

In the end, the company did get its 17 casks, and it has added more since then. While there have been no serious accidents at the plant, long-term storage questions persist. Back in the 1990s, the government was working to establish a long-term repository under Yucca Mountain in Nevada. But funding for the project has been cut.

That brings us back to the current proposal before the Minnesota Legislature.

The Minnesota Catholic Conference, the social policy voice of the state’s bishops, opposes lifting the ban because of concerns about the lack of a long-term storage facility and the future safety of communities located near short-term waste containment sites, according to Katie Conlin, the organization’s interim social concerns director.

The church doesn’t oppose nuclear energy outright, however. Indeed, it recognizes that nuclear energy offers an alternative to reliance on coal and other energy sources that produce carbon emissions and contribute to the problem of global warming — at least until other sources of power like wind and solar energy can be developed on a wider scale.

But an accident — even if it is an extremely rare event — at a nuclear power plant could have implications for human and environmental health that are more far-reaching and longer-lasting than an accident at a coal plant.

In a recent column in The Visitor, newspaper of the Diocese of St. Cloud, Professor Bernard Evans of the St. John’s School of Theology/Seminary in Collegeville, said prudence and solidarity should guide local discussions on the issue:

“To build nuclear power plants without having a clearer plan about the long-term storage of highly radioactive waste seems imprudent,” Evans said. “If the virtue of prudence directs us not to act in ways that may endanger others, then we must look elsewhere to satisfy our ever-increasing energy needs. That is not an easy task because the continued burning of coal also presents a danger to future generations.”

What do you think is the prudent approach and the right approach to meet today’s energy requirements? Should Minnesota lift its moratorium on new nuclear power plants or keep it in place?

About Joe Towalski

Editor of The Catholic Spirit, husband, dad, baseball fan(atic), astronomy buff. Follow me on Twitter @towalskij

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