ST. PAUL - Nuclear power advocates asked for a conversation about expanding the energy source in Minnesota.
After nearly seven hours of testimony, lawmakers ended that conversation as they rejected a plan to lift the state's ban on new nuclear power plants.
Bill author Rep. Tim Mahoney, DFL-St. Paul, said his legislation did not guarantee a new nuclear plant would be built in Minnesota, only that state regulators could consider the energy source.
"Not starting this conversation will keep Minnesota's energy future at risk," Mahoney said Thursday before the House Energy Policy and Finance Division rejected his bill 12-9 on a mostly party-line vote.
Committee Chairman Bill Hilty, DFL-Finlayson, said he has tried to keep an open mind about nuclear energy, but decided the moratorium should remain. He said an implication that more nuclear energy production is possible in Minnesota would be a distraction from the state's emphasis in recent years on renewable energy production.
"Let's keep focus on the path that we have already started," Hilty said.
The proposal, which has failed to gain support in past years, lacked backing beyond the energy committee.
Removal of the 15-year-old moratorium will not occur this year, said Sen. Steve Murphy, a Red Wing Democrat, who last month withdrew similar legislation in the Senate.
"Nobody's clamoring to build nuclear power plants," Murphy said.
The House vote came after two evenings of testimony from nuclear industry officials, environmentalists, union laborers and people who live near the state's two nuclear power plants - Red Wing's Prairie Island facility and Monticello's plant.
Nuclear is a clean energy alternative, and the public has increasingly embraced nuclear energy since the ban was put in place in 1994, Mahoney said, calling it part of the "national energy conversation."
"Minnesota should not be left out of that discussion," he said.
Prairie Island Indian Community President Ron Johnson said his tribe is among the closest communities in the country to a nuclear power plant and stored nuclear waste.
The tribe for years has had safety concerns related to the plant, including its two radiological leaks, the facility's waste stored in casks on a Mississippi River floodplain and transportation of hazardous materials.
"Prairie Island believes the federal government must deliver on its promise to move nuclear waste to a safe, secure facility before the nation embraces a so-called nuclear power renaissance," Johnson said. "Until that happens, it is irresponsible for any state, including Minnesota, to entertain building new nuclear power plants."
Greg Boek of Red Wing, a Prairie Island reactor operator, said nuclear plant employees take the safety of the public seriously. He said expansion of nuclear energy should at least be considered.
"Let's look at all the facts and examine the real issues," Boek said.
Committee member Rep. Bud Nornes, R-Fergus Falls, said nuclear should be on the table because new technology could make the energy source more affordable or more effective.
"We'll get a shot at it again sometime," Nornes said.