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A nuclear threat looms over Prairie Island Community

PRAIRIE ISLAND, Minn. - Imagine living with a nuclear power plant 600 yards from your home.

Now, go one more step with that thought. Imagine that a nuclear power plant is 600 yards from where you work as well. Frightening?

Complete your circle of thought and imagine that you not only live and work next to a nuclear plant, but you live on an island with only one exit in case of emergency.

For many the scenario would be a nightmare, but this is a daily reality for the Mdewakanton, members of the Prairie Island Indian Community of Minnesota Mdewakanton Dakota.

"This was imposed on Prairie Island, when the site was built," President Audrey Kohnen said. "We didn't' have the resources, we didn't have lawyers, we didn't have environmental people who could show our concern and speak up and help us and now we do."

The small tribe has lived on Prairie Island for generations and consider it a sacred place, one where their medicine gatherers came hundreds of years ago to pick medicines to heal their people.

Their battle against the danger posed by the nuclear power plant at their back door is not the first they have fought as they struggle tenaciously to hold onto their homeland.

The 1840s was first time the United States government stepped into the Mdewakanton existence with broken promises and eventually removing them from the area, but it wouldn't be the last. Now, under the shadows of the nuclear reactors, the tribe once again faces the possibility of removal, this time to save its future.

Resolution of this new threat may not turn out as well as it did for the few Mdewakanton families who returned to their island and bought back small parts of their homeland in 1880. They were rewarded when the federal government recognized the Prairie Island Indian Community and 534 acres became the tribe's reservation in 1936.

Even with no jobs, electricity or plumbing, the tribal members danced and sold crafts to support themselves. They've said being surrounded by poverty was a small price to pay for the reality of being home again.

The second federal invasion of the Mdewakanton came in 1968 when Northern States Power (now Xcell Energy) started construction on a nuclear power plant, less than a half mile from the small community. Although the tribe was not compensated or consulted, members were offered jobs and training for employment at the plant, promises the tribe says were not honored.

Without the financial resources to fight the project, the tribe watched in 1974 as the NSP's nuclear reactor went online and the plant was opened for business. By 1989 it was facing unresolved fuel storage problems for spent fuel, called dry casks. At that time the NSP announced it was going to develop a dry cask storage facility at the Prairie Island plant. Now the Mdewakanton not only had a nuclear power plant as a neighbor, but the possibility of a nuclear waste dump in its backyard.

Between 1990 and 1994 the NSP worked to find a solution to its nuclear waste problem. In 1994 the Minnesota Legislature approved use of 17 casks, but imposed conditions that included that NSP must search for a new storage area away from Prairie Island and that it must make commitments to develop renewable energy sources.

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When no permanent repository for the waste was found by 1996, the Prairie Island Indian Community and NSP went before the Minnesota Legislature. They presented an agreement that would have allowed the power company to keep the storage casks on Prairie Island in return for compensation to the community and give the tribe the option to relocate its tribal members. The Legislature rejected the agreement, and it was back to square one.

That same year, the U.S. Court of Appeals in the District of Columbia ruled that the Department of Energy must honor its obligation to begin accepting the nation's nuclear waste by Jan. 31, 1998. That deadline came and went without Energy being able to determine what standards a national repository would need, records show.

A suitability study of Yucca Mountain in Nevada as a national repository for spent nuclear fuel by Energy is underway, but the Prairie Island Nuclear Plant is running out of time.

By 2005, the NSP expects to have all 17 state-licensed casks filled, but the twin reactors are licensed to operate until 2013 and 2014.

In the interim, the Mdewakanton opened the Treasure Island gaming facility on the island. Opened in 1984 as a bingo hall, Treasure Island has a 250-room hotel and has become a destination resort for vacationers. More expansion is planned, but the threat of the nearby nuclear plant and its waste may end financial gains the tribe made in the past two decades, tribal officials said.

The small island that sits at the confluence of the Vermilion and Mississippi Rivers in Minnesota, some 30 miles southeast of St. Paul, near Red Wing, is subject to periodic flooding. There is only one road that can provide an evacuation route from the island to the mainland, but that road is not always accessible. Approximately 20 to 25 trains that average 150 cars per train cross the island everyday, blocking the only escape route for those on the island.

Tribal sources say the irony of the trains is the freight they haul. A derailment of hazardous materials would trap island residents.

Yet life goes on in the Prairie Island Indian Community. Children play in the shadows of the reactors, unaware of the constant threat of possible Armageddon for the small community.

Health concerns about the nearby plant and its nuclear waste have some members of the community worried as "mysterious" illnesses and tumors plague residents of the small island. Many community members simply want to see the plant closed and the waste removed, fearing more health-related problems may surface in the community.

One possible solution advanced is for the nuclear waste to be shipped to another reservation, that of the Skull Valley Goshute in Utah as an intermediate stop for the nuclear waste until the permanent repository at Yucca Mountain is ready in 2010.

A recent visit with Sen. Paul Wellstone, D-Minn., may be the beginning of dialogue between the federal government and the tribe on its concerns about the nuclear power plant.

"We're pleased that Sen. Wellstone decided to meet with us on a government-to-government level to discuss our unique situation," a tribal council spokesman said. "No other community in the nation lives as close as we do to a nuclear power plant and a nuclear waste dump ... we appreciate the senator's attention in the matter and his willingness to consider our health and safety concerns."

The future of the small island in Minnesota is unclear, but for now children play in the shadow of the nearby reactors unaware of the danger around them. Tribal members say they can only hope that another generation of Mdewakanton will have an opportunity to play there, without the specter of the twin reactors in the background.