Tribe needs nuclear waste solution


RED WING, Minn. – The Prairie Island Indian Community called on President Barack Obama to follow the law and deliver on the federal government’s decades-old mandate and promise to establish a permanent repository for the nation’s commercial nuclear waste.

The tribe’s urging comes after Congress approved the FY 2010 Energy and Water Appropriations bill which cuts funding for the proposed national nuclear waste repository at Yucca Mountain, Nev., to record low levels. High-level, radioactive nuclear waste from the nation’s nuclear power plants is currently accumulating at “temporary” storage sites in 39 different states, including Minnesota. The Prairie Island Indian Community, near Red Wing, Minn., is located less than 600 yards from a nuclear power plant and nuclear waste storage site operated by Xcel Energy.

“The Prairie Island Indian Community continues to pay the price for the federal government’s failure to follow the law and fulfill its promise to find a permanent solution for the nation’s nuclear waste. (The) vote by the U.S. Senate to move the bill to the president is another slap in our face,” said Prairie Island Tribal Council President Ron Johnson. “Continued inaction and delay by the federal government and elected leaders is irresponsible. We call on Congress and the president to put politics aside and commit to a national nuclear waste storage solution that ensures the safety, health and environments of the communities like ours who live so close to nuclear waste storage facilities.”

Twenty-seven years after Congress passed the National Nuclear Waste Storage Act mandating the establishment of a national underground waste repository, and after the federal government has spent more than 20 years and $10.4 billion studying the proposed Yucca Mountain repository, President Obama this February announced his administration’s plans to completely abandon the project and seek alternatives.

U.S. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., a vocal critic of the Yucca Mountain project, has said the administration’s FY 2011 budget will provide zero funding for Yucca Mountain. This comes after the American ratepayers have contributed more than $33 billion, including nearly $700 million from Minnesotans, since 1983 to the national Nuclear Waste Fund for the development of a safe and secure national nuclear waste storage facility. A blue ribbon commission to study and recommend alternatives has yet to be appointed.

Located just 600 yards from Xcel Energy’s twin nuclear reactors and 25 large steel casks of highly radioactive spent nuclear fuel, the Prairie Island Indian Community is among the closest communities in the country to a temporary waste site. The dry cask units sit on a cement pad in the floodplain of the Mississippi River, near the community’s homes, businesses, church and community center.

According to the Department of Energy, there are 121 of these nuclear waste storage facilities throughout the U.S. Xcel Energy is currently seeking relicensing of its aging, nearly 40-year-old Prairie Island plant. The current licenses expire in 2013 and 2014. The Prairie Island Indian Community is opposing the relicensing.

If the Prairie Island nuclear power plant is relicensed for an additional 20 years as Xcel Energy is proposing, 69 new nuclear waste casks would be necessary, bringing the total number of casks at Prairie Island to 98. Each one of these storage casks contains 40 spent fuel assemblies, which represents approximately 25 tons of nuclear waste.

Considering the current standstill on a national repository, the only reasonable assumption at this time is that thousands of tons of nuclear waste will be stored indefinitely on Prairie Island, in casks designed to store the waste only temporarily.

“We did not ask for a nuclear neighbor, and we know the people of Nevada have not asked for one either,” Johnson said. “However, we believe that storing nuclear waste at Yucca Mountain, a remote, militarily-secure facility the government has designed and designated for permanent storage, is a better solution than leaving it where it sits – virtually indefensible and only yards from vulnerable communities such as ours.

“It is irresponsible to continue producing this nuclear waste without a sensible plan for how to deal with it. Our community will continue to hold the federal government accountable for its pledge to deal with the waste, we will continue to oppose the relicensing of Xcel Energy’s nuclear power plant, and we will continue to oppose any expansion of nuclear power until this issue is resolved.”