Prairie Island nuclear plant licenses renewed

By Steve Karnowski
Minneapolis, Minnesota (AP) July 2011

Federal regulators have renewed the operating licenses for the Prairie Island nuclear power plant, which will allow it to run for 20 more years, Xcel Energy Inc. announced.

The utility also said it plans to invest at least $500 million in the plant near Red Wing through 2015, and even more if the Nuclear Regulatory Commission approves an increase in generating capacity at the plant, which the company plans to apply for later this year.

“Prairie Island has operated in a safe, reliable, economic and environmentally sound manner for nearly 40 years, and our significant investments to support life extension will ensure continued, solid performance for the next 20 years,” Judy Poferl, president and CEO of the utility’s Northern States Power Co.-Minnesota subsidiary, said in a statement.

The renewal was opposed by the Prairie Island Indian Community, whose reservation is next to the plant. Tribal officials say they have longstanding health and environmental concerns they don’t believe were adequately addressed in the lengthy review process. They include long-term exposure to low-level radiation and radioactive contamination of groundwater at the site, as well as Xcel Energy’s plans for increasing the power output of the plant, which will require additional storage of spent nuclear fuel there.

Prairie Island in southeastern Minnesota provides about 20 percent of Minneapolis-based Xcel Energy’s generating capacity in the Upper Midwest. The renewal allows the Unit 1 reactor to continue operating until 2033 and Unit 2 to run until 2034. The company also owns a nuclear plant near Monticello in central Minnesota that was relicensed in 2006 to operate until 2030.

In its renewal notice to Xcel Energy, the NRC said it found “reasonable assurance” that Prairie Island can operate “without endangering the health and safety of the public,” and in compliance with federal regulations.

Tribal officials did not immediately return messages seeking comment. But in a filing with the NRC last week, the tribe reiterated its concerns about elevated radioactive tritium levels in two wells on the plant property. The radiation levels are well below the federal standards for drinking water, but the tribe said it fears there could be health effects from long-term exposure.

An Associated Press investigation into aging reactors published this month found that tritium has leaked from three-quarters of U.S. commercial nuclear power sites. It found the number and severity of the leaks has been escalating, even as federal regulators extend the licenses of more and more reactors. NRC records show that tritium, a radioactive form of hydrogen, has leaked from at least 48 of 65 sites across the country, including Prairie Island. Leaks from at least 37 facilities elsewhere contained concentrations exceeding the federal drinking water standard. At three sites – Prairie Island and two in Illinois – the records show tritium in the wells of nearby homes, but not at levels violating the drinking water standard.

Tritium was found in one residential well near the Prairie Island plant in 1989. Various regulatory filings show the source of the tritium has never been pinned down, but that it might have come from a liquid waste discharge line that emptied into a canal to the Mississippi River until 1992, or on-land discharges of sump pump water that have been discontinued, or possibly from a leak in a heating system during the 1977-78 heating season.

The tribe told the NRC it has yet to receive a satisfactory answer from the agency or NSP as to why the radioactivity levels in the wells continue to fluctuate and why the source still hasn’t been conclusively identified.

“Doesn’t this raise a red flag that something is wrong (at the plant)?” the tribe’s general counsel, Philip Mahowald, wrote in the filing.

In a separate statement, Poferl said none of the elevated tritium levels posed a threat to health.

“We consider any unintended release of radioactive material to be unacceptable,” she said. “We have extensive monitoring programs in place at both plants for early detection of tritium in groundwater. When we’ve found elevated tritium levels – none high enough to be a public health concern – we have investigated the cause, increased our monitoring and made changes as warranted.”

The tribe also said in its filing with the NRC last week it believes the spent nuclear fuel in “temporary” storage in dry casks outside the plant “will never leave” and fears the number of casks will grow to 98 by the time the plant is decommissioned, given that the federal government has shelved plans for a permanent radioactive waste depository at Yucca Mountain in Nevada.

Dry cask storage at Prairie Island was the subject of a bitter political fight in the 1990s. Xcel Energy eventually won permission to use the casks to store spent fuel on site until another solution is found. The company has filled 29 casks there so far, and the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission in 2009 approved up to 35 additional casks to take care of the 20-year life extension, company spokeswoman Mary Sandok said.

The plant would need 34 more for decommissioning and would need to seek state authorization for them in the future, she said.