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House committee approves expanded nuke storage at Prairie Island
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Prior to a committee vote, opponents of expanded nuclear waste storage at Prairie Island held a protest in the Capitol rotunda. (MPR Photo/Michael Khoo)
A bill to expand the storage of spent nuclear fuel at the Xcel Energy's Prairie Island nuclear plant has cleared its first legislative hurdle. On Wednesday the House Regulated Industries Committee approved the measure on a 13-7 party-line vote, with Republicans in support. Xcel says without the additional capacity, the plan will be forced to shut down in 2007, depriving the state of a major source of electricity. But environmental advocates say the company should be weaned from a reliance on nuclear power and be required to develop renewable energy alternatives.

St. Paul, Minn. — In 1994, the Legislature granted Xcel, then called Northern States Power, permission to store spent nuclear fuel on-site at Prairie Island in 17 above-ground dry casks. The utility at that time vowed not to seek any expansion, arguing that a federal repository would eventually open to receive and store the material. But plans to develop a permanent federal facility at Yucca Mountain in Nevada are behind schedule, and Xcel representative Laura McCarten says without new on-site storage in Minnesota, the plant will have to shut its doors. That, she says, would mean greater reliance on fossil fuels that produce air toxins.

"What we have learned is that it would take coal and natural gas to replace a nuclear plant to run around the clock, day-in and day-out. So it's really not correct to set up a competition between nuclear and renewables," she said.

McCarten says it's simply not feasible, at this point, to expect wind, solar, or biomass options to replace the Prairie Island facility. But environmental advocates say they're not convinced. The bill does provide additional funding for research and deployment of renewable energy techonologies. But that funding comes at the expense of conservation efforts meant to reduce electricity consumption in the first place.

"This bill continues to fail to meet the needs of the state of Minnesota in developing a viable renewable energy industry, viable rural economic development. And it not only does not solve the problem of nuclear waste, but worsens it," said Brian Elliott, who represents the Clear Water Action Alliance of Minnesota.

The bill expands nuclear waste storage at Prairie Island through the life of the plant's federal license. It also grants authority to the state Public Utilities Commission to add even more storage capacity at the facility and to create a storage site at the Monticello nuclear reactor.

Opponents say that could ultimately lead to almost five times the amount of storage currently allowed, and without automatic legislative oversight. But the bill's chief author, Rep. Torrey Westrom, R-Elbow Lake, says without the bill, the state would lose a reliable and affordable energy source.

He says the bill finally addresses the concerns of the Prairie Island Indian Community, located adjacent to the nuclear plant.

"The '94 Legislature for whatever reason left them out of the money that was given. I think it's balanced because it deals with their issues, their concerns. As many have expressed, they were legitimate. And this bill deals with it," said Westrom.

The tribe and Xcel have reached a tentative agreement for the company to pay more than $2 million a year to the tribe. The funding would help the Indian community develop alternate evacuation routes in the event of an accident at the plant and fund a long-term health study.

Tribal spokesman Byron White says he expects the full tribe to ratify the deal next month. "While we are satisfied with the agreement, it is not cause for celebration. We still face the sobering reality of our situation. And despite progress with Yucca Mountain, we understand that there is no guarantee that nuclear waste will ever be removed from Prairie Island."

That concern -- that the federal repository may never open or that it won't have sufficient capacity to store all of Minnesota's nuclear waste -- is prompting a different approach in the DFL-controlled Senate.

Sen. Ellen Anderson, DFL-St. Paul, is sponsoring a bill to phase out the use of Prairie Island and require Xcel to develop a plan for replacing the facility's capacity. The plan would have to make heavy use of wind power. The proposed legislation will compete alongside the measure favored by Xcel.

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