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State Legislature to decide future of nuclear energy
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While Xcel Energy has yet to officially request more dry cask storage at its Prairie Island plant, many legislators expect the issue to come up during the next legislative session. (Photo courtesy of Nuclear Regulatory Commission)
Almost nine years ago after a contentious debate the state of Minnesota approved on-site nuclear waste storage for the Prairie Island nuclear plant. At the time Northern States Power, now Xcel Energy, said it expected to be able to move the waste to a federal repository within a few years. That repository has yet to materialize. Now Xcel says it may have to close down the Prairie Island facility if it doesn't get more storage space. While Xcel has not officially asked for more storage many observers say its almost inevitable that it will be part of the upcoming legislative session.

Rochester, Minn. — Minnesota's two nuclear power plants supply roughly 30 percent of the state's electricity. Both plants are constantly producing highly radioactive nuclear waste and both will be forced to close within a few years unless the plants can build more storage space.

Xcel's Director of Community Service Laura McCarten says the company needs a decision from the state by the end of 2003.

"The state has to decided what is the right course of action going forward - whether to retain the nuclear option or if not how to replace it," says McCarten.

But plans to add storage space are controversial, especially at Prairie Island. Residents on the neighboring Mdewakanton Dakota reservation say they've suffered health problems as a result of the plant.

Jake Reint, a spokesperson for the Prairie Island tribe, says safety concerns have been ignored.

"The tribe remains opposed to any additional storage at Prairie Island," Reint says. "That position has been consistent since 1994 when the state and Xcel first sought to store nuclear waste 600 yards from their homes and businesses."

The tribe is willing to negotiate with the energy company. They have two main demands. They want a second evacuation route off of the reservation for use in the event of a disaster. They would also like new reservation land away from the nuclear plant.

So far weekly conversations between Xcel and tribe have yielded little. In fact, tensions may even have increased. That's because Xcel officials say its up to state lawmakers to decide on additional cask storage space. While the Indian community maintains that under the 1994 agreement, they're guaranteed a seat at the decision making table.

Tribal spokesperson Jake Reint says the community intends to defend that position.

"That's the only thing the tribe got back in 1994. If its not, they truly got nothing," he says. "Secondly, if it is a valid agreement, then Xcel would breaking a legal contract or it entered into a contract that it never intended to keep."

Meanwhile, many of the legislative players on the waste issue in 1994 are no longer around. And it's unclear who will spearhead the new effort.

In another shift, the Prairie Island tribe has forged a new allegiance with the GOP. Back in 1994, the tribe was closely aligned with Democrats. In the last election tribal leadership contributed more than $30,000 dollars to Republican candidates.

Wy Spano, the co-editor and publisher of Politics in Minnesota, says the party switch was politically astute.

"Right now," he says, "It looks like the tribes that have done more to support Republican candidates in the past, are ready to acquiesce to the GOP position and say the leave the casks where they are will get something else for proving service to the state."

One thing that hasn't changed over the past decade is unwavering opposition from anti-nuclear activists. Back in 1994 George Crocker helped lead the Prairie Island Coalition, a group formed to fight the dry cask storage. Crocker says this time the group will be known as Nuclear Responsibility Now and will represent groups opposed to the Prairie Island and Monticello plants.

Crocker says he respects the Prairie Island tribe's decision to chart its own course.

"But," Crocker says, "We will also continue to pursue an agenda for a much a more responsible electric utility system than the one that continues to foster and promote the kinds of liabilities and destructiveness associated with nuclear power."

Crocker says he expects to be one of many people at the state Capitol this session to debate the nuclear waste issue.

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