What else is Xcel hiding?

by Joel Helfrich

Each month I underpay my Xcel Energy electricity bill by $5. I attach a sticker to my payment that states that the “human and environmental costs of power from Manitoba Hydro (in Canada) are too high.”

Minnesota state law stipulates that Xcel cannot assess me a fee or fine, as long as my outstanding balance is never more than $10. Although my efforts are part of JustEnergy’s “Unplug Manitoba Hydro Campaign,” they could also voice my concerns about the ways in which Xcel conducts its business regarding nuclear power on and around Indian reservations, and how Xcel’s actions affect all Minnesotans.

On Dec. 3, Xcel filed its new resource plan, indicating its intention to return to the State Legislature to request more nuclear waste storage casks, beyond its 17-cask congressional limit established in 1994, be stored at its Prairie Island facility.

Although Xcel wants to continue operating the plant at least until the current licenses expire in 2013 and 2014, officials fear they will have to shut down the reactors in 2007, when storage space for spent fuel becomes exhausted. As Xcel officials make their case to the Legislature this session, they will certainly say nuclear power is safe and that environmentalists and Indian leaders who oppose nuclear energy and their company’s nonchalant attitude are “emotional.” Notice how emotional these officials become once they are faced with the reality that the Prairie Island plant will eventually close.

It should be noted that Xcel announced its resource plan less than one month after David Hanners of the St. Paul Pioneer Press reported, “A supervisor at Xcel Energy’s Prairie Island nuclear power plant deliberately withheld key documents from Nuclear Regulatory Commission inspectors who were investigating the forced shutdown of one of the plant’s two reactors last year, federal investigators have determined.”

Hanners also said, “The Minnesota Public Utilities Commission is investigating claims that Xcel submitted fraudulent reliability data to the state.” These findings are just some of the many violations that Xcel Energy has committed over the years.

In July 2001, for example, 16 of 17 floodgates designed to protect the Prairie Island plant from rising waters were found to be dysfunctional. Whose bright idea was it to place a nuclear plant on a flood plain in the first place?

Such violations and safety concerns beg the questions: What else is Xcel Energy doing wrong? What else are they hiding, not only from its customers but also from the people who live within two blocks of the nuclear power plant? Furthermore, in this time of corporate irresponsibility, why should the citizens of Minnesota reward a company whose actions regarding Prairie Island are not trustworthy?

But our collective historical memory fades daily. One year ago people were worried about the threat of terrorist attacks on nuclear power plants. Now, we are concerned with impending war with Iraq. It would behoove Minnesotans to remember the struggles in Washington state during the mid-1970s that forced Washington Public Power Supply System, a consortium of 16 public utilities, to mothball two nuclear power plants that were under construction and default on $2.25 billion in government bonds – at the time the largest municipal default in history.

When the consortium changed its name in 1999 to Energy Northwest, the Puget Sound Business Journal reported “recently the consortium received its first vote of investor confidence in almost three decades, raising $70 million to finance a wind energy project near Finley, in south-central Washington.” Indeed, wind energy, especially in upper Great Plains area, is the way to go.

Many energy experts say North Dakota and South Dakota alone have the potential to take care of a half of the entire United States’ energy needs. Still, current governmental spending on research for nuclear power and the oxymoronic “clean coal” is much more than $3 billion -considerably more than the government is spending on solar, wind, hydrogen fuel cells or any other form of renewable energy.

The 1.3 million Xcel Energy customers in this state – including the University of Minnesota – have a say in the ways in which Xcel Energy conducts its business. We also have the ability to influence our legislators to make right, ethical choices.

Martin Luther King Jr., who we honored Monday, would most certainly stand in opposition to Xcel Energy’s business practices. As early as November 1957, in a sermon delivered at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Ala., King said: “Oh, we talk about politics; we talk about the problems facing our atomic civilization. Grant that all men will come together and discover that as we solve the crisis and solve these problems – the international problems, the problems of atomic energy, (and) the problems of nuclear energy.”

Five days before his 1968 death, King delivered a sermon in Washington, D.C. Martin Luther King Jr. said, “Cowardice asks the question – ‘is it safe?’ Expediency asks the question -‘is it politic?’ Vanity asks the question – ‘is it popular?’ But conscience asks the question – ‘is it right?’ And there comes a time when one must take a position that is neither safe, nor politic, nor popular; but one must take it because it is right.”

Joel T. Helfrich’s column appears alternate Tuesdays. Send letters to the editor to [email protected]