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Has Minnesota's nuclear power moratorium met its match?

Armed with majorities in the Minnesota House and Senate, Republican lawmakers in both chambers plan to introduce bills Monday to lift the state's nearly two-decade moratorium on building nuclear power plants, one of the most restrictive measures in the nation.

Similar efforts have been launched during recent legislative sessions with limited results, but the influx of newly elected Republicans into the Capitol may finally provide enough support for passage.

A House committee has already scheduled a hearing on the bill for Tuesday.

The big question? Whether Gov. Mark Dayton, a DFLer, will veto a bill if it lands on his desk.

Dayton said during the campaign that lifting the ban would be "irresponsible" until the federal government finds a place to store nuclear waste. Nuclear advocates, he said, "are just talking about adding more nuclear waste and more nuclear waste, with no responsible outcome or resolution to that [storage] problem in sight."

Xcel Energy operates two nuclear power plants in Minnesota, at Prairie Island and Monticello. The company says the plants generate 25 percent of the energy it provides to customers in the Upper Midwest.

But the waste from those plants has been a contentious issue in the past, with Prairie Island and the nearby city of Red Wing challenging in court permits granted for additional storage capacity. That appeal failed last November.

A spokeswoman for the governor's office, Katie Tinucci, said Dayton wants to know more details about the bills before saying whether he plans to veto.

Senate Majority Leader Amy Koch, a sponsor of the Senate bill, said she hopes to work with Dayton. "We're not trying to fast track this for a veto," she said.

GOP legislators say power companies have no immediate plans to build a new plant, but that lifting the ban would allow for a more open discussion of the state's energy needs.

"It's a very important step, but it is a baby step," said Rep. Joyce Peppin, R-Rogers. Peppin, a sponsor of the bill, noted that building a nuclear power plant could take up to a decade after a company decides to move forward. It has been 30 years since a nuclear plant was built in the United States.

Who pays the price?

Support for lifting the ban hasn't broken evenly along party lines, though Republicans have traditionally been more open to the proposal. During the last session, DFLers advocated lifting the ban only if ratepayers were spared design, engineering and other pre-construction costs until a plant was operational.

At the time, Peppin called the language "a poison pill" that would make it "virtually impossible" to build a new plant.

That discussion isn't likely to fade away soon.

"Planning for new nuclear power is very pricey," said New Brighton DFLer Rep. Kate Knuth, who plans to vote against a straight repeal bill on the Environment Committee this week. "I think a ratepayer should be protected from price increases that they would see even before a nuclear plant is starting to be built."

Waste storage will also be a hot topic moving forward. The federal government recently cut funding for a proposed national storage site at Nevada's Yucca Mountain, which could force Prairie Island and Monticello to keep even more nuclear waste on-site.

Officials in Red Wing want any legislation that lifts the ban to address the waste issue and put more pressure on the federal government.

"If the state Legislature is really serious about expanding nuclear power and building new facilities, it needs to do more than simply repeal the moratorium," said Red Wing City Council Member Lisa Bayley. "It needs to engage in the issue that is really stopping nuclear power in its tracks -- what to do with the nuclear waste it creates."

Koch, whose district includes the Monticello plant, said legislators will discuss the waste storage issue. However, she said, lifting the ban could spark action at the federal level.

"I think that this pushes the feds as the states start to lift these moratoriums," Koch said. "I think its important for the feds to get their act together."

Eric Roper • 651-222-1210