All Waste Remains Where it is First Put

tumafeature“There is a basic law of nuclear waste often overlooked – all waste remains where it is first put.”

Richard Wilson Riley
Then Governor of South Carolina

This little bit of southern folk wisdom just happened to find its way into Minnesota history when quoted by administrative law judge Allen W. Klien in his opinion advising the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission to reject Northern States Power’s (NSP, now known as Xcel) petition to store nuclear waste at the Prairie Island nuclear plant in April 1992.  Klien was the Minnesota Administrative Law Judge appointed in 1992 to collect evidence and provide an opinion to the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission (PUC) as to whether NSP was allowed to store spent nuclear fuel rods in dry casks outside its Prairie Island nuclear power plant. It was through this battle for nuclear waste storage that nuclear and renewable wind energy would become forever linked in Minnesota.

In the early 1970s Minnesota policymakers bought into the concept of cheap energy from nuclear power with the promise that the federal government would be responsible for the resulting radioactive waste. After nearly two decades after Minnesota invested in nuclear power, it was clear that this permanent storage was not coming any time soon. Therefore, in May of 1989 NSP petitioned the PUC to “temporarily” store these spent fuel rods from the Prairie Island nuclear plant in “dry casks” on a concrete pad just outside of their plant.  A dry cask is a 17′ x 9′ steel cylinder holding 40 spent fuel rods encased in helium to keep the fuel cool. Each of the spent fuel rods are highly radioactive with a decaying “half-life” of 24,000 years and it takes 10 of those “half-lives” before the waste is no longer dangerous.  One of Judge Klien’s findings was that the cask only had a design life of 25 years with a possible maximum life of 100.

NSP’s problem at the time was that in 1977 Minnesota had passed the Radioactive Waste Management Act prohibiting “permanent” storage of nuclear waste in Minnesota without legislative approval.  NSP’s central argument was that the 1977 Act did not apply to the “temporary” storage of casks at Prairie Island due to the imminent construction of a federal repository at Yucca Mountain in Nevada.  They put into evidence that the federal government was required to provide the repository that would be taking waste by 1998, but the utility expert testified that it would likely be ready by the year 2010.  On cross-examination, the “expert” apparently conceded that 2010 was optimistic.  (Finding 88 of Judge Klien’s findings, 4-10-92)  Well, at least the NSP “expert” did get the optimistic part right.  It’s 2013 and the only thing hibernating in the caverns off Yucca Mountain, Nevada are rattlesnakes and scorpions.

Judge Klien gave a finding to the PUC that the casks were necessary, but that NSP could not construct them until they received legislative approval pursuant to the 1977 Act. It was his opinion that this form of storage could very well become permanent. NSP convinced the PUC to authorize the construction without legislative approval, which led to a landmark decision by the Minnesota Court of Appeals in July of 1993. The Court of Appeals, like Judge Klein, supported the necessity of the storage, but made it clear that the legislature would be required to approve this storage.

This set off one of the most intense environmental battles of Minnesota legislative history in the 1994 Legislature. The very controversial “Prairie Island Bill” would eventually pass the legislature authorizing the 17 casks, but, in true legislative form, not without a mix of several compromises. What has turned out to be one of the most significant of those compromises was the requirement that NSP invest in clean renewable sources of energy such as wind generation. It was the first renewable energy mandate passed by any state. The so-called energy experts belittled the initiative as a costly waste of ratepayer’s dollars as it could not produce energy as cost-effectively as nuclear power.

Flash-forward to the news stories this last weekend and the so-called experts look a little foolish. Xcel Energy announced on Monday that it will add an additional 600 megawatts of wind power in the Upper Midwest that will amount to a one-third increase in its regional wind power. Interestingly this recent development was not spurred on by renewable energy mandates but by the fact that wind energy is much more cost-effective for ratepayers. “These projects will lower our customers’ bills, offer protection from rising fuel costs, and provide significant environmental benefits,” said Dave Sparby, president and CEO of Northern States Power Co.-Minnesota, Xcel’s regional subsidiary.

This positive news for renewable energy was followed up by much more quiet announcement from Xcel on Wednesday. Tucked away in its regulatory filings Xcel noted that the five-year project to upgrade the Monticello nuclear power plant to extend the life and increase output at the reactor, originally budgeted at $320 million, had climbed to nearly $640 million. It was these costs and not renewable energy that was driving their rate increase request at the PUC. Despite not having to permanently deal with the waste disposal, it is now clear that the price of nuclear energy is no longer, nor was it ever, really competitive. Not only is renewable energy more cost effective, it also creates four times as many jobs per megawatt as natural gas and 40% more jobs per dollar invested than coal.

Interestingly, South Carolina Governor Richard Wilson Riley, who gave us the frank and amazingly prophetic assessment of nuclear waste storage quoted above, was most famous as an education reformer.  He was extremely popular in his home state due in large part to significant education reforms.  He was so popular with the people of South Carolina that they amended their constitution to allow him to serve a second term.  Riley was later appointed by President Clinton to serve as the Secretary of Education.  He has been considered one of the most effective cabinet members in our nation’s history.  I wonder how Secretary of Education Riley would grade Xcel in energy development. I’m going to give them a B for showing significant improvement with their latest commitment to cost-effective job creating renewable wind energy.

*Cited from the findings of the Minnesota administrative law Judge Klien, 4-10-92 on the dry cask storage at Prairie Island.

About John Tuma

John is a former state legislator and litigation attorney. He served in the Minnesota House of Representatives for eight years from the Northfield area, beginning in 1994. Elected as a Republican, John was known for his independent thinking and ability to work across party lines. He is well-known in Minnesota state government circles.
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