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Senate votes to expand Prairie Island nuke storage
The Minnesota Senate has approved a plan to increase nuclear waste storage at Xcel Energy's Prairie Island power plant. Early on Tuesday, the Senate voted 42-to-24 for a compromise plan that keeps the facility open for the next 10 years, but preserves legislative oversight of any operation beyond that horizon. The plan also increases investments in renewable energy and codifies an agreement between Xcel and the Prairie Island Indian Community situated adjacent to the facility.

St. Paul, Minn. — Without expanded nuclear waste storage, Xcel officials estimate the Prairie Island facility would have to shut down in 2007, depriving the state of a significant source of electrical power. The Senate plan provides enough additional storage capacity to keep the plant running until its final license expires in 2014.

Sen. Steve Murphy, DFL-Red Wing, who represents the Prairie Island district and also works for Xcel as a fuel technician, authored the Senate compromise.

"Those plants are safe; they're economical; and they're reliable," he says. "And they're going to pay for hundreds more megawatts of windpower. They're going to pay for hydrogen research and a lot of different things over at the university to move us into the next generation of energy production."

The plan calls for Xcel Energy to more than double its investments in renewable energy technology -- and strengthens commitments the company made to produce 10 percent of its power from renewables by 2015. Although the compromise keeps Prairie Island running through its current federal license, it requires additional legislative approval before the facility -- or the Monticello nuclear plant -- could operate beyond that timeframe.

Sen. Ellen Anderson, DFL-St. Paul, had originally opposed any expanded waste storage. But she says maintaining legislative control over long-term nuclear decisions was a crucial element of the compromise.

"It's not 100 percent of where I'd like to see there, but the legislative approval is the deal-breaker on the nuclear side," she says.

Xcel has preferred leaving future decisions up to the Public Utilities Commission. The final agreement gives the PUC a strictly advisory role. Under the Senate plan, the PUC would issue a decision on re-licensing the plants, and the Legislature could then accept or reject the commission's findings.

But lawmakers couldn't modify the PUC's recommendations or add new conditions beyond what the commission had proposed. Xcel spokesman Scott Wilensky says its too early to know if they Senate plan will meet the company's needs.

"We do have some concerns related to whether the legislative review is actually workable or not and can limit future discussions just to an up-or-down vote on nuclear," he says.

Wilensky worries that the Senate deal could be ineffective in limiting future legislative debate to the single issue of whether to re-license the plants without adding further conditions. A House alternative, in its current form, leaves the decision to the commission.

But Gov. Tim Pawlenty has made it clear that he expects the Legislature to have a final say. He reiterated that position before the Senate began its debate.

"I think it's appropriate for the Public Utilities Commission to make a recommendation, to make an interim decision, to make a decision. But it all has to be subject to some form of legislative review or oversight or final decision-making," according to Pawlenty.

Enviromental activists greeted the Senate compromise with mixed feelings. Diana McKeown, who represents the Clean Water Action Alliance of Minnesota, says she's pleased to see the additional renewable development funding and the legislative oversight role.

But McKeown says the plan nevertheless almost doubles the amount of nuclear waste storage at Prairie Island. And she says it's not clear how or when the additional material will ever be relocated.

"It's very disappointing to see additional casks and for Minnesota that means that we're going to continue to see this waste on the river. And we don't know for how long," she says.

The Senate deal must now be reconciled with whatever version the House approves. And a final solution will depend on ratification of an agreement between Xcel and the Prairie Island Indian Community, which lives next to the plant. A tentative plan would provide the tribe with more than $2 million a year to address health and safety concerns. A tally of the tribe's ratification vote is expected later Tuesday.

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