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Twin Town High (vol. 8)
20 More Years of Nuclear?
Thursday 16 September @ 16:58:18
XCel Energy seeks to extend license of state's three reactors
by Carey L. Biron
Minnesota’s three nuclear plants, the source of three decades of bitter political fights between Xcel Energy and grass-roots coalitions, will keep on running 20 years past their expiration dates if the company gets its way.
The nuclear facility in Monticello and the two at Red Wing’s Prairie Island
have been operating for more than three decades, and are nearing the end of
their federally-licensed life spans—currently scheduled for 2010, 2013
and 2014. For the conservation and Native American groups who despise the use
of nuclear power and the local storage of radioactive waste, those dates were
the light at the end of the tunnel.
Then, on the first of this month, the plants’ owner, Minneapolis-based
Xcel Energy, announced it will seek approval to keep on running the plants for
20 more years.
To keep the plants going, Xcel needs two things: federal approval from the Nuclear
Regulatory Commission (NRC) and somewhere to put all the waste. The first is
not expected to be much trouble for the company, as the NRC has never rejected
a re-licensing application. The second requirement might also have become easier
for the company since last year, when the legislature gave away its power to
the governor-appointed Public Utilities Commission (PUC).
“The people of Minnesota have a lesser ability to influence PUC’s
decisions,” than the decisions of elected officials, warned Scott Elkins,
the Sierra Club’s state director. “So the public will get less of
an opportunity to be heard both in the relicensing process, as well as in the
nuclear waste storage process than they did in the past.”
The author of last year’s bill putting the PUC in charge of regulating
Xcel was Sen. Steve Murphy (DFL-Red Wing)—a paid employee of Xcel Energy
at the same time he was writing a legislative bill to help the company.
In 1994—the first time the energy company came to the state with a storage
request, to stockpile high-level nuclear waste in temporary casks at the Prairie
Island facility—there were political fireworks. Although Xcel has more
lobbyists than any company in the state, grassroots groups were able to force
a compromise; the company could store some waste if it invested in alternative
“Now it appears that they’ve totally thrown in the towel on making
that sort of transition,” suggested Elkins.
Current projections by the Minnesota Department of Commerce estimate that Minnesota’s
energy consumption needs will increase by 2,700 megawatts in the upcoming decade
—assuming that the current nuclear plants continue operating. Xcel’s
Jim Alders, manager of regulator projects, says that this extraordinary increase
in need is where the conversation for renewable resources needs to begin.
“Nuclear power plants are part of our baseload facilities; they operate
around the clock,” he said. “We’re going to have to add hundreds
and hundreds of megawatts of new power plants, just to keep up with the demand
for electricity. That’s where there should be a vigorous debate about
how much of that should be in renewables. You don’t increase the potential
for renewable resources by doing away with nuclear power plants. What you do
instead is make the cost of electricity more expensive.”
For the people of Monticello, any misgivings about the plant and stored waste
seem to have been snowed under long ago. Monticello City Administrator Rick
Wolfsteller recently told the Monticello Times that Xcel will pay just under
half of the city’s taxes this year. Back when the plant first opened,
that figure was closer to 75 percent.
Next door to the Prairie Island plants, the Mdewakantonwan community—paid
$1 million per year as long as the plants continue operating—“has
been a reluctant neighbor of the plant and storage,” said Jake Reint,
a spokesman for the community. Reint says that, while the tribal council is
not surprised by the news, “the council does still believe that there
needs to be a permanent storage solution before we get too far down the line
of operating the plant indefinitely.”
That appears to be significantly easier said than done. Although the federal
government did finally name Nevada’s Yucca Mountain as the only option
for long-term waste storage, it has encountered legal and logistical problems.
“We found that radiation release standards wouldn’t protect the
health of future generations,” said the Public Citizen’s Michelle
Boyd. “They arbitrarily gerrymandered the site boundary so that radiation
release standards would go 18 kilometers to a control area,” Boyd argued.
“According to their own standards, for 10,000 years no one’s supposed
to drink the water or grow food on that land. However, there are already wells
on that land and there is farming just south of there.
Boyd says that this 10,000-year period doesn’t even get to the waste material’s
most dangerous period. “It’s ludicrous: according to the National
Academy of Sciences, the maximum doses are likely to occur at 30,000 years or
more,” she said.
Even if Yucca Mountain were to open today, the Sierra Club’s Scott Elkins
says that it wouldn’t even be big enough to handle all of the waste material.
“So there’s the concern on the part of a lot of folks that these
storage sites on the flood plain of the Mississippi River will in essence become
permanent nuclear waste storage facilities,” he said.
Not only is Xcel shirking its legal mandates by not investing in more renewable
energy sources, says George Crocker of the North American Water Office, but
doing so would be significantly easier and more economical than the public is
“Minnesota exports about $10 billion to import its energy; about a third
of that is for electricity,” he said. “In other words, the money
train leaves each year with about $3 billion … There are so many ways
that we could channel that money—that we are spending on energy anyway—and
use it instead for local economic development with locally available community
based renewable energy. That’s exactly what Xcel is trying hard not to
The state’s reactors account for about 20 percent of Xcel’s overall
capacity, Crocker emphasizes. “We could easily have a system in which
20 percent was wind and still not be in the way of reliability of the system.
So that means that wind, all by itself, could displace the energy and the capacity
that these reactors produce.”
Since the 1994 agreement, Crocker says that progress made in Minnesota’s
energy infrastructure has been backsliding. He says that he’s not surprised
by Xcel’s decision to renew their nuclear licenses, but he is saddened.
“The reason we’re not doing [renewables] and instead are doing nuclear
is because that’s the way that the people running Xcel make their money,”
he said. “It has everything to do with privilege and the sunk investment
that’s already made into these obsolete and terribly, increasingly dangerous
nuclear technologies. What’s probably even more disturbing, though, is
that there are so many people in this state that are functionally illiterate
about how their utility services are delivered that Xcel could even dream of
trying to do such an irresponsible development.” ||
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