After 17 years, Minnesota's ban on new nuclear power plants moved a decisive step closer to being overturned Thursday.

Following the lead of the state Senate, the House passed a bill to eliminate the moratorium by a vote of 81 to 50. On Feb. 2, the Senate passed its version, 50 to 14.

It was a clear victory for the Legislature's new Republican leadership, after repeated attempts to overturn the ban had failed during previous legislative sessions.

But an amendment approved by the House makes its bill sharply different from the Senate's and could cloud the legislation's prospects as the chambers try to reconcile the two versions.

The measure would allow the state's Public Utilities Commission to issue a certificate of need that would let Minnesota's electric utilities build or expand nuclear plants.

The House amendment, sponsored by Rep. Phyllis Kahn, DFL-Minneapolis, would prohibit the reprocessing of nuclear fuel that results in the production of plutonium, a weapons-grade material that can be used to make nuclear warheads.

The amendment, approved 94 to 37, was described as "a poison pill" by Rep. Joyce Peppin, R-Rogers, the bill's principal House sponsor.

Several other amendments, proposed by DFL representatives, were defeated.

It's not immediately clear how much practical effect a green light for new nuclear plants will have in Minnesota -- assuming DFL Gov. Mark Dayton signs the bill into law.

Although he has stopped short of threatening to veto it, he has expressed strong reservations about it.

Specifically, he has said it must contain three elements: prohibit plutonium production at any plant in Minnesota; allow no net increase in the amount of nuclear waste produced in the state, and a guarantee of no rate increases for customers of utilities that operate nuclear plants.

'We need all options'

Kahn said her amendment "moves one-third of the way" toward satisfying his concerns. She also said she doesn't know how the amendment would fare in a conference committee that will work to reconcile the House and Senate versions of the bill.

"We'll see what happens in the Senate," Kahn said. "If you want to reprocess nuclear fuel, you shouldn't produce plutonium."

In a federal policy dating to the 1970s, American utilities are prohibited from reprocessing nuclear fuel, specifically because of worries about nuclear weapons proliferation.

Peppin said lifting the moratorium "does not mean there's going to be a new power facility" because planning and construction of a new plant could take a decade or more.

"We need all options on the table, as far as energy goes," she added.

Dayton also has said he opposes lifting the moratorium as long as there is no permanent storage solution for the spent fuel from more than 100 existing nuclear plants nationwide.

It was the federal government's lack of progress on a permanent storage strategy that prompted the Legislature to enact the ban in 1994.

Utilities in no rush to build

The swift action on the moratorium this year comes at a time when lawmakers from both parties nationwide, the Obama administration and even some longtime environmental critics have rallied to the nation's moribund nuclear industry.

They have done so as concerns about greenhouse emissions from electrical plants powered by fossil fuels and rising prices of those fuels have given at least a theoretical boost to the industry.

However, none of Minnesota's utilities is in any rush to build new nuclear plants. Although they supported scrapping the ban, their spokesmen have said they foresee no need for such massive base-load plants that can cost billions of dollars and take years to build.

Xcel Energy, the state's largest electrical utility, operates Minnesota's only nuclear plants, at Prairie Island and Monticello. A long-running battle over increasing storage of spent fuel rods at the Prairie Island plant, exacerbated by the lack of a federal storage solution, prompted legislators to enact the moratorium.

Bob von Sternberg • 612-518-3182