The future of nuclear energy in Minnesota

January 30, 2024
As we navigate the clean energy landscape, and find ways to achieve 100% carbon-free electricity by 2040, there is growing debate about Minnesota’s future with nuclear energy, particularly with small modular reactors known as SMRs.

Nuclear 101

In the quest for a carbon-free future by 2040, Minnesota is utilizing power from clean electricity paired with significant energy efficiency measures. However, there is one low-carbon energy source that has been generating electricity since the 1970s in Minnesota, sparking both fascination and debate – nuclear energy, the process of fissioning atoms to generate heat and produce electricity. As we navigate the clean energy landscape, there is heated debate about Minnesota’s future with nuclear energy, particularly with small modular reactors known as SMRs.

Two nuclear reactors on a sunny day

What is Nuclear Energy?

From fission to fusion, nuclear power harnesses incredible energy within atoms. This source of energy can be produced in two ways: fission – when nuclei of atoms split into several parts – or fusion – when nuclei fuse together. It is primarily produced from nuclear fission, a process where atoms split and release energy. Nuclear power reactors use heat produced during nuclear fission to boil water and produce pressurized steam. The steam is then used to turn the turbine that drives the generators to make electricity. A transformer converts the electrical energy to the high voltage needed by the national grid, which is sent through power lines to your homes. Afterwards, the steam is cooled and recycled to keep the electricity generation going.

Minnesota has two nuclear power generating facilities that have been operating since the early 1970s. Nuclear power has been a controversial topic in the state since the construction of both the Monticello and Prairie Island nuclear power plants by Xcel Energy. Despite the controversy, nuclear power continues to be one of the most reliable, low-carbon energy sources available.

A Minnesota Perspective on Nuclear Energy

Monticello nuclear generating plant Monticello nuclear generating plant

Small modular reactors (SMRs) are advanced nuclear reactors. The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) defines ‘small’ as 300 MW(e) per unit. This is about one-third of the generating capacity of large, conventional reactors. (As a comparison, Prairie Island nuclear power plant generates 1,076 MW of power). SMRs are expected to provide simplicity of design, enhanced safety features, shortened construction time, and reduced siting costs. Since the Monticello and Prairie Island nuclear power plants opened, new nuclear development has stalled. In 1994, the Minnesota Legislature placed a moratorium on new construction of nuclear power. This amendment proposed to keep the moratorium in state statute until storage, disposal, and safety concerns were adequately addressed. Even with the moratorium placed on Minnesota, nuclear advocates are still actively pursuing the future of nuclear energy.

 

 

As recently as the 2023 Minnesota Legislative Session, Senate lawmakers explored the idea of small modular reactors. Senator Andrew Mathews proposed a bill that would require the Department of Commerce to study the potential costs, benefits, and impacts of advanced nuclear technology. The estimated cost for the bill proposal is $300,000. This study would also touch on things that nuclear energy could impact, like power bills, clean energy goals, local jobs, and the environment.

At CEEM, we believe all carbon-free electricity sources should be evaluated as we work to achieve 100% carbon-free energy by 2040. Last session our organization submitted a letter of support to study the costs and benefits of this new technology. Ultimately, support for this study was not included in the final energy package passed into law.

The Idaho Project

From discussions about building small modular reactors to studying advanced nuclear technologies, many nuclear advocates believe it could be a viable solution. So, is there a future for nuclear energy in Minnesota? Let’s dive into a longstanding initiative that gained attention for nuclear in the future.

The Idaho Project, also known as the “Carbon Free Power Project,” was proposed to be the first commercial SMR in the U.S. Idaho’s nuclear labs developed a 462 MW small modular reactor. The plan was to install six of NuScale’s power modules to generate electricity. This was a highly anticipated project that was very promising for small modular reactors. NuScale Power, a leader in SMR technology, recently cancelled the project last November due to the inability to attract enough utility customers. Despite the setback, advocates for nuclear energy, like Eric Meyer, founder of Generation Atomic, believe there are several new reactor designs that are cheaper and safer to build. A handful of state lawmakers have visited this project and found inspiration for nuclear energy in Minnesota. In 2022, Xcel Energy discussed ideas of operating a SMR plant with the help of NuScale Power but have yet to announce concrete plans.

Despite the growing conversation around nuclear energy, there has been little progress with constructing them in the United States. Given the constantly evolving nature of nuclear energy, it will take more time and research to develop a clear understanding of its impacts and benefits to the state.

 

 

Power lines near Prairie Island nuclear plant
Image depicting graphic design of nuclear power

Top Pros and Cons of Nuclear Energy

Pros of Nuclear Energy

Carbon-Free Electricity

Nuclear reactors do not produce air pollution or carbon dioxide while operating. Nuclear energy protects air quality by being a low-carbon energy source. The World Nuclear Association explains that over the course of its lifetime, nuclear produces about the same amount of carbon dioxide emissions per unit of electricity as wind, and one-third of the emissions per unit of electricity when compared with solar. With the new law proposal for 2040 requiring electricity to come from carbon-free sources, many nuclear advocates are pushing nuclear as a source of energy.

Small Land Footprint

Nuclear energy delivers a massive amount of electricity on less land than any other clean-air source. According to the Nuclear Energy Institute (NEI), a nuclear energy facility has a small area footprint, requiring about 1.3 square miles per 1,000 megawatts of energy. This is an ideal land use compared to the land footprint of a wind farm or solar facility. The bill proposed last session in Minnesota would explore the idea of nuclear costs. SMRs are a focal point since they have a smaller physical footprint than conventional reactors.

Reliable Energy Source

Nuclear energy is one of the most reliable energy sources based on its constant production and accessibility. It is a large-scale power source that can withstand even the most extreme weather conditions. In 2022, nuclear power plants operated at full capacity more than 92% of the time. Nuclear power plants are designed to run 7 days a week because they require less maintenance and can operate for longer periods of time.

Cons of Nuclear Energy

Uranium is Non-Renewable

While nuclear energy is a clean source of energy, it is not renewable due to its reliance on uranium, which is a finite source. Uranium occurs in soil, rock, and water. It can be extracted from uranium-bearing minerals, such as uraninite. Current nuclear technology relies heavily on uranium production found in limited locations. Nuclear power plants require a specific type of uranium, U-235, which must be extracted and processed before it can be used as a fuel, ultimately making it rare and difficult to collect.

High Upfront Costs

Nuclear power plants are significantly more expensive to build than a coal-fueled or gas-fueled plant. Operating a nuclear plant is relatively low-cost, but the time and energy that goes into building it dramatically increases in cost. According to the Institute for Progress, most of nuclear energy’s cost come from construction, but can be broken down into three categories: fuel costs, operation and maintenance costs and capital costs. When Xcel Energy was given permission to store nuclear waste, they agreed to pay a hefty fee. They pay the state between $350,000 and $500,000 annually for each waste cask used. In addition to the state fees, Xcel agreed to an annual payment towards the Prairie Island Indian Community for storing nuclear waste near their community. Under a deal announced last March, Xcel agreed to increase the yearly payment from $2.5 million to $10 million to extend the life of its power plant.

Nuclear Waste

Many people are concerned about the impact of wasted fuel from nuclear energy. Nuclear reactors and power plants produce radioactive waste as a byproduct, which is classified into two categories: high-level and low-level. High-level waste is primarily spent fuel from reactors after producing electricity. Low-level comes from reactor operations and commercial uses. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) regulates the storage and disposal of generated radioactive wastes in the United States. Recently, state regulators have given the green light to Xcel Energy to store additional radioactive waste at its Monticello plant. This decision sparked mixed reactions, with many worried it will be a problem for future generations.

Historical Issues to Modern-Day Pitfalls

Nuclear energy has a long and complex history. It is hard to discuss nuclear power without acknowledging the major global disasters that altered our perception and utilization of this energy source. The most notable incidents involving nuclear power are the Chernobyl, Fukushima, and the Three Mile Island disasters. These disasters have led to the increased scrutiny of safety and regulation of nuclear power plants.

Thinking locally, Minnesota has had their fair share of issues with nuclear energy, dealing with storage and disposal mismanagement, environmental injustices, radioactive wastes, and irregular shutdowns. In 1979, radioactive steam was released into the atmosphere at the Prairie Island nuclear generating plant. The radioactive emission appeared to be safe, however it left a lasting impression on many, including the Prairie Island Indian Community (PIIC), who are only 700 yards away from the plant. The PIIC were never notified of this leak, yet they have been dealing with the nuclear plant since the 1970s. Over the years, many PIIC members have voiced their frustration towards the plant and nuclear waste storage, hoping for a better solution.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Along with the PIIC’s concerns, there have been other incidents that have raised eyebrows in the past few years. One being the 400,000-gallon leak of water from Xcel Energy’s Monticello nuclear plant, containing tritium. The leak occurred in November of 2022, but the public wasn’t notified until several months later. Although there was no harm to public safety, it increased the level of anxiety many have of nuclear energy. Xcel had another recent incident with their Prairie Island plant when an external transformer malfunctioned and set off a fire alarm, causing a three-month outage.

The past and present issues serve as a reminder of the potential dangers of nuclear energy and the importance of safety measures in the operation of nuclear power plants. Despite these challenges, nuclear advocates believe it has real potential to assist Minnesota in achieving carbon-free electricity by 2040.

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