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Prairie Island Faces Another Battle Over Nuclear Waste
By Erin Galbally
Minnesota Public Radio
May 17, 2001

President Bush's energy agenda is expected to call for new nuclear energy plants, and the extension of the lives of current plants. While there no immediate plans to break ground for additional nuclear plants here in Minnesota, the state Legislature is pondering a controversial proposal to increase storage capacity at the Prairie Island nuclear plant. In 1994 lawmakers approved dry cask storage at the plant, despite mass protests and opposition by a neighboring Indian community. The sides are gearing up for another fight.

Some of the sealed containers which store nuclear waste at the Prairie Island nuclear power plant near Red Wing, Minn. Xcel Energy says it will run out of storage space in six years. A bill introduced in the legislature would allow the plant to build more storage containers. Take a virtual tour of the Prairie Island plant.
(Photo courtesy of Xcel Energy)
THE PRAIRIE ISLAND NUCLEAR POWER PLANT SITS on the Mississippi River flood plain near Red Wing, three blocks from the Prairie Island Mdewakanton Dakota reservation. The plant provides 20 percent of Minnesota's electricity and sends power to neighboring states. Seven years ago, lawmakers extended the plant's life to 2007, allowing Northern States Power, now Xcel energy, to store nuclear waste on site.

Now, citing a pending energy crisis, two state legislators are pushing for another increase in storage capacity that would allow Prairie Island to operate at full capacity at least to 2014. Rep. Loren Jennings, DFL-Rush City, says ideally his bill would end nuclear storage limits at the Goodhue County site.

"That we as a state say, if those plants can meet all the safety and all the federal requirements, and are still economical to run, we want them to run. There is zero emissions that come out of a nuclear power station, and of course they're there - so you're not stringing new wires or building new power plants," says Jennings.

But Jennings' plan is not receiving a warm reception from the 200 Native Americans who live in the plant's shadow. While Jennings insists the nuclear plant operates emission-free, many on the reservation argue the community has suffered a disproportionate percentage of health problems, and safety concerns have been largely ignored. The tribe's lawyer John Nap says any move to increase nuclear storage violates the 1994 agreement, and once again compromises the tribe's well-being.

"In reality, this is a modern treaty. It's only seven years old, but it's a commitment from the state to the Indian tribe. For people that think that promises made and broken to Indian tribes are things of 100 years ago, this will be a test in terms of the state's moral and ethical obligations to its Indian people," says Nap.

What to do with the nuclear waste has been an ongoing battle between state and federal officials. A federal waste repository was supposed to open by the late 1990s, but the project is years behind schedule. A federal project is now underway in Nevada's Yucca Mountain, where eventually officials expect waste from Prairie Island will be shipped and stored for the next 10,000 years. However, it won't be ready to take waste until after Prairie Island has filled its current 17 storage casks. And unless the plant gets more casks, it will be forced to close in six years.

That would be fine by longtime activist George Crocker, who heads the Prairie Island Coalition. According to Crocker, Minnesota needs to focus on safe renewable energy sources. He cautions loading Prairie Island with more nuclear waste is a disaster waiting to happen.

"Any way you look at it, further entrenching nuclear power in Minnesota is a very bad idea. More nuclear waste on Prairie Island is a very bad idea. If it ultimately happens, I'm just afraid that we're going to deserve what we get," says Crocker.

According to Xcel's Scott Northard, the energy company has not been involved with the pending legislation. But Northard says without a place to store waste, time will run out for the plant.

"The authors apparently intend to begin a debate on this issue. I don't know if any action is going to be taken this legislative session at this late date, but I think those lawmakers intend to ignite public dialogue and debate, which is a good outcome for a proposal like this," Northard says.

Last time, this debate attracted national attention and saw the hallways of the state Capitol clogged with environmentalists. With nuclear power making a comeback on the nation's radar screen, Minnesota's debate will be one of many played out across the country.

More Information

  • Xcel Energy
  • Prairie Island Coalition
  • The History of Nuclear Power Plant Safety
  • Union of Concerned Scientists
  • Nuclear Energy Institute
  • International Nuclear Safety Center