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Column: Nuclear power is important

An astonishing thing happened recently on the floor of the Minnesota State Senate -- bipartisan progress on a critical energy issue. Legislators overturned an outdated ban on even considering the development of additional nuclear power here in Minnesota. It passed on a vote of 42-24 (that's 22 Democrats and 20 Republicans voting in favor), and I was among those voting yes.

Today, we receive most of our electricity from coal-fired power plants. We aren't fond of the pollution they emit, but understand their necessity for base-load electric generation. Our nuclear component consists of three reactors at two Xcel Energy plants in Monticello and Prairie Island. Together, these facilities supply about 20 percent of the state's electricity with no new plants built in about 35 years.

Since 1994, Minnesota law has prohibited state regulators at the public utilities commission from even considering applications for the construction of any new nuclear power plants. I believe this to be the result of primarily two arguments, both weakened by time and technology-safety and waste.

Nuclear power has proven to be one of the safest methods of generating electricity. To put this in perspective, each year tens of thousands of Americans die from respiratory diseases due to the burning of coal and hundreds are killed in related mining and transportation accidents. In contrast, not one American has died or even been seriously injured due to a reactor accident or radiation exposure from our nuclear power plants. Our safety and engineering standards only continue to improve relegating old fears to history.

One example of a nation who has built a dramatic and extensive nuclear power industry and is dealing with its waste byproducts is France. While I may not follow the latest Paris fashions, I do know they have reached a considerable level of energy independence with 80 percent of their domestic electricity being generated by 58 commercial nuclear reactors. They have developed new technologies for the recovery of valuable elements from spent fuels as well as a significant reduction in overall radioactive waste. The difficulties of disposal and storage can be and has been greatly minimized.

It is also important to note that nuclear power plants aren't designed and built overnight. It can take many years to bring a new nuclear power plant online and Xcel Energy has said they currently have no plans to build. One thing is for certain, the moratorium guarantees nothing can ever be built. At least now the option can be on the table.

I strongly contend that a balanced energy policy must include nuclear along with coal, wind, solar, hydro as well as conservation. This is critical to meeting our growing energy demands and for a sound national security policy.

Chris Gerlach represents Rosemount.