Prairie Island Tribe passes referendum, Xcel Energy Waste Bill becomes law

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RED WING, Minn. - On May 29, Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty signed into law the controversial nuclear storage bill which, among other things, enables Xcel Energy to store additional radioactive waste at the Prairie Island Nuclear Plant near Red Wing, Minn. until licenses for the two reactors expire in 2013 and 2014.

The bill had been the heated topic of the 2003 legislative session, forcing the session into overtime as lawmakers formed the basis of nuclear policy in Minnesota for the next generation. "It represents a fair and reasonable compromise for the Prairie Island Indian Community, Minnesota rate payers, and utility shareholders," Pawlenty said in a prepared statement. The bill also ratifies an agreement reached with the tribe on May 14.

The bill includes provisions allowing Xcel Energy, the largest energy utility company in Minnesota with an estimated 1.5 million customers, to store additional waste at the nuclear power plant on the 534-acre Prairie Island Mdewankanton Dakota Reservation. The plant will reach its capacity of 17 nuclear waste storage casks in 2007. Xcel has said it would close the plant that same year if not allowed to store additional waste. Xcel officials have stated that they intend to ask federal regulators to re-license the Prairie Island Plant until 2033 and 2034. Xcel needs guarantee of a long-term commitment to substantiate investments to upgrade the aging reactors. The waste from the reactors could stay in Minnesota indefinitely, as there is no permanent federal repository in existence.

In addition to lengthening waste storage time, the bill calls for increased funding for wind and other renewable energy, and also redefines the term "renewable energy" itself. The common belief is that "renewable energy" means hydroelectricity, wind power, or biomass. The bill passed defines it as any electricity generated by a plant, including a tire-burning plant that incinerates waste tires, garbage incinerators, and a proposed coal gasification plant for the Iron Range in Northeast Minnesota.

By a referendum vote of almost 2 to 1, the Prairie Island Tribe accepted an agreement with Xcel on May 14. The tribe will receive $2.25 million every year for the next 10 years and lesser amounts each year thereafter. Tribal officials have said that the tribe will use the money to conduct its first-ever health study focusing on elevated cases of cancer since the plant was built, an evacuation plan from the island in case of any possible accidents, and purchase land elsewhere so that tribal members wishing to relocate away from the plant may do so.

The plant sits less than 600 yards from some residences and businesses. The plant and storage casks also sit directly on a low-lying Mississippi River floodplain. The Vermilion and Mississippi Rivers converge at the island and, like all areas with similar geographical features; it is subject to sporadic flooding.

The Prairie Island nuclear power plant's first reactor officially went online in 1973. Its second reactor went online the following year. At the time the Prairie Island tribe lacked resources and funding to fight against construction of the plant. The tribe was initially told that it was going to be a steam plant.

In 1990, Xcel (then known as Northern States Power, or NSP) applied for an on-site dry cask storage facility from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. It was determined that Legislative approval was necessary for dry cask storage, and in 1994 the Minnesota Legislature approved the dry concrete pad method storage of 17 casks.

Prairie Island tribal elder Chris Leith, also known as Brave Thunderhorse, recalls "Over the years we have seen our tribal members become ill with cancer and other unexplained sicknesses, and now we can't even use the plants we once used for healing and medicines. It's hard to believe that the steam we see coming out of the plant in the winter isn't poisonous like they tell us in those brochures." Leith holds traditional sweat lodges on his property year-round. When exiting from the east door at dusk, the first sight to behold is not the starry sky or the tall prairie grasses, but the large, imposing praying mantis-like concrete reactor towers. During cold months the steam can be seen billowing from the reactors' cooling vents by the naked eye. Environmental studies revealed that the reactors emit 200 curies per year of airborne radioactive material.

On May 31, just two days after the bill was signed by Gov. Pawlenty, Excel announced that its plans for two fossil fuel plants which were proposed for construction near the cities of Mankato and Rosemount will be abandoned. Neither city has a significant native or minority population within its borders.