Environmentalists protest nuclear storage plan

Andrew Pritchard

University students and environmentalists rallied Tuesday outside the Radisson Hotel Metrodome on Washington Avenue to protest Xcel Energy’s plan to expand waste storage at its Prairie Island nuclear plant.

“Minnesotans want to continue on the path of clean energy and shouldn’t be held hostage by a company that has to be dragged kicking and screaming into the 21st century,” said Diana McKeown, Clean Water Action Alliance program coordinator.

About 35 demonstrators chanted, carried signs and listened to speakers while Xcel President Wayne Brunetti spoke inside the Radisson to Carlson School of Management students.

The Prairie Island nuclear plant first stirred controversy in 1994 when the Legislature granted Northern States Power, Xcel’s predecessor, permission to store spent nuclear fuel rods in casks at the plant.

Now, Xcel contends its Prairie Island plant will have to shut down by 2007 – and the state’s other nuclear plant, in Monticello, Minn., by 2010 – unless the Legislature approves more storage.

“They promised never to put more nuclear waste storage in Minnesota, and they’re skipping on that promise,” said Jon Hunter, Minnesota Public Interest Research Group program director.

Xcel community services director Laura McCarten said the utility decided to push for more nuclear waste storage after requesting proposals for replacing its nuclear plants with coal-fired or natural gas plants or a combination of wind and natural gas energy generation.

“We did this analysis and we looked very carefully at what it would take to replace the nuclear plants,” she said.

If both nuclear plants continued operating, Xcel predicts electricity rates will increase 3.7 percent by 2011. Replacing that output with new coal plants, the cheapest option, would increase rates 11.3 percent.

However, coal plants would also produce more pollution, McCarten said, including particulate matter and carbon dioxide.

A combination of wind and natural gas would raise rates 13.3 percent, and gas alone would increase prices 14.1 percent, McCarten said, making continued nuclear plant operation the cheapest, cleanest and most reliable energy option.

McKeown said nuclear power carries its own dangers.

“Be clear that nuclear power does have routine radioactive discharges into the water,” she said. “They have permits for it.”

McCarten said Xcel will still develop renewable energy and has committed to increasing its wind power output to 825 megawatts by 2007.

Additionally, McCarten said, the company favors renewable energy when it requests proposals for new energy development projects.

McCarten also said Xcel designed the Prairie Island storage site with safety in mind. The cask foundations are several feet above the anticipated “1000-year flood” mark and several more feet above the highest flood ever recorded in that part of the state.

The site is also designed to withstand floods, earthquakes and tornadoes, she said.

“It has been continuously monitored by the Minnesota Department of Health since it began operating,” McCarten said.

President George W. Bush and the Office of Civilian Radioactive Waste Management favor solving the nation’s nuclear waste buildup by moving spent fuel rods to a permanent storage facility at Nevada’s Yucca Mountain.

But the state of Nevada and environmental groups oppose the plan, saying the site is vulnerable to earthquakes and flooding.

“Certainly Yucca Mountain is extremely flawed when it comes to the science,” McKeown said.

Hunter said Xcel should stop producing more waste rather than wait for a long-term storage solution.

“If you have a bathtub that’s overflowing, you don’t go looking for the mop before you shut off the water,” he said.

McKeown said nuclear waste should stay in temporary facilities such as Prairie Island until experts develop a workable solution.

“The key is that the waste shouldn’t move from where it is until there’s a scientifically sound solution and a sound, secure transportation method,” she said.

McCarten said state lawmakers seem interested in Xcel’s proposal.

“I think they’ve understood that there’s a lot to understanding this issue,” she said. “I think there’s a pretty strong sentiment that it’s an issue that needs to be dealt with this session.”

Andrew Pritchard welcomes comments at [email protected]