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St Paul, Minn — For more than a decade, Xcel and seven other utilities have been trying to build a private nuclear waste storage facility, most recently on the Skull Valley Goshute Reservation in Utah. The private fuel storage was intended to be a stopgap measure, until a permanent federal facility at Yucca Mountain, Nevada, could take the waste.
The site proposed for the private Utah storage facility sits near an Air Force training ground. Thousands of F-16 jets fly over each year. Now the Nuclear Regulatory Commission's licensing board has ruled that the threat of an F-16 crash makes the site unsuitable. Xcel Energy's Laura McCarten says the company has not yet decided whether to appeal the decision.
“We're not quite certain. The Private Fuel Storage group is looking at what the next step could be, trying to understand the procedures here,” she says.
The NRC says it could reconsider the decision if the utilities can convince the Air Force to reduce the number of F-16s flying over the site or alter the jets' flight pattern, or if the utilities can show the facility would be strong enough to withstand an F-16 crash.
Xcel's McCarten says the company hopes the NRC will reconsider on the basis of existing studies that show the site is suitable. However, it's unusual for the NRC to overrule its licensing board.
Right now, spent nuclear fuel from the Prairie Island plant is being stored in 17 dry casks outside the plant. Those casks are now full. Under a 1994 law, Xcel needs permission from the State Legislature for any additional casks.
McCarten says the NRC ruling doesn't change the situation at the State Legislature. “We still need a decision in the 2003 session, and we always understood and tried to convey that the timing associated with the private fuel storage was uncertain. And because we couldn't count on that, we needed to have a decision in 2003,” she says.
But critics say the NRC's ruling highlights the continuing obstacles to removing nuclear waste from Minnesota. Diana McKeown, energy program coordinator for the environmental group Clean Water Action, says there’s no guarantee of “when or if ever that radioactive waste will leave Prairie Island. I think it's really important in the context of the debate on whether we should allow more casks, what that means as far as our waste and the cost of Minnesota taking care of that waste, absent an alternative site.”
If the private fuel storage project in Utah falls through, Xcel will need more than 50 casks at Prairie Island to keep the plant running until the federal repository at Yucca Mountain opens, according to Xcel's planning documents. That's more than twice the number of casks the company will need if it can move waste from Prairie Island to private fuel storage in Utah.
The federal site at Yucca Mountain is not expected to begin accepting waste till 2015.