Essay On Radioactive Waste In Prairie Island Nuclear Plant

Xcel Energy’s Renewable Development Fund (RDF) was created in 1999 pursuant to the 1994 Radioactive Waste Management Facility Authorization Law (Minn. Stat. § 116C.779). Originally, Xcel Energy was required to donate to the fund $500,000 annually for each dry cask containing spent nuclear fuel being stored at the Prairie Island nuclear power plant, amounting to about $9 million annually. Subsequent legislation, enacted in May 2003, extended nuclear-waste storage at Xcel Energy’s Prairie Island plant and increased the amount Xcel must pay toward the development of renewable-energy resources to $16 million annually for as long as the utility’s Prairie Island nuclear plant is in operation and $7.5 million for each year the plant is not in operation. This payment rate is in effect until there are 32 casks stored at the plant (scheduled to happen in 2012). Legislation passed in 2010 (S.F. 3275) will go into effect at this time, which requires Xcel to contribute $500,000 per cask annually. The current schedule for casks storage is:

2011: 27-29 casks
2012: 30-32 casks
2013: 33-35 casks
2014: 36-38 casks
2016: 39-41 casks
2017: 42-44 casks
2019: 45-47 casks
In May 2007, S.F. 2096 amended Minn. Stat. § 116C.779 after Xcel petitioned the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission (PUC) to begin dry cask storage at Monticello, a second nuclear power plant. Under this legislation, Xcel is required to contribute $350,000 towards the fund for each dry cask storage device containing spent fuel at the Monticello plant for as long as the plant remains in operation and $5.25 million annually for each year the plant is not in operation. Xcel’s petition for dry cask storage at Monticello (which continues to operate) has been approved according to the following schedule:

2008: 10 casks
2013: 20 casks
2016: 30 casks

Therefore, Xcel’s annual contribution to the RDF was increased from $16 million to $19.5 million during 2008 and will increase again to appoximately $24.5 million in 2013 and $26 million in 2014.

Up to $10.9 million annually must be allocated to support renewable energy production incentives through January 1, 2021. Of this amount, $9.4 million supports production incentives for electricity generated by wind-energy systems. The balance of the $10.9 million sum (up to $1.5 million annually) may be used for production incentives for on-farm biogas recovery facilities, hydroelectric facilities, or for production incentives for other renewables. Unspent portions of this allocation from any calendar year may be used for other purposes allowed under this fund (see Funding Allocation section).

In addition to the $10.9 million annual allocation for renewable energy production incentives, 2009 Minnesota legislation required Xcel to send an additional $5 million annually to fund a grant for the University of Minnesota’s [ University of Minnesota’s Initiative for Renewable Energy and the Environment (IREE)]. However, this section of law was suspended in 2011, then in April 2012 by S.F. 2181.

Funding Allocation

Funds in the RDF account may only be used for the following purposes:

  • To increase the market penetration of renewable electric energy resources in Minnesota at reasonable costs
  • To promote the start-up, expansion, and attraction of renewable electric energy projects and companies within Minnesota
  • To stimulate in-state research and development into renewable electric energy technologies
  • To develop near-commercial and demonstration scale renewable electric projects or near-commercial and demonstration scale electric infrastructure delivery projects if those delivery projects enhance the delivery of renewable electric energy

Preference must be given to development of renewable-energy projects located in Minnesota, but a small number of projects located in other states have been funded. Renewable energy technologies eligible for funding typically include wind, biomass, solar, hydro and fuel cells. Funding is generally split between new development projects that result in the production of renewable energy, and research and development. Expenditures from the RDF may only be made after approval by order of the PUC upon a petition by the public utility.

Project Selection and Examples
The RDF is administered by the Renewable Development Board, which originally consisted of two representatives from Minnesota’s environmental community, one representative from the Prairie Island Indian Community, and two representatives of Xcel Energy’s ratepayers, one representing commercial/industrial customers and one representing residential customers. However, S.F. 2181 specifies that Xcel is only required to include ratepayer representatives on the board, but may include other parties. Awards have historically been given to projects supporting the research and development of new renewable energy sources and energy production for wind, biomass, solar, hydropower, biofuels and coal gasification. Examples of the number of projects and total awards for each of the four RDF funding cycles are listed below.

  • First Funding Cycle (2001): 19 renewable energy projects awarded nearly $16 million in funding
  • Second Funding Cycle (2005): 29 renewable energy projects awarded nearly $37 million
  • Third Funding Cycle (2007): 22 renewable energy projects awarded nearly $23 million
  • Fourth Funding Cycle (2013): Applications were due April 1, 2013.

Xcel must submit an annual report to the legislature by February 15 describing the projects funded by the RDF. In addition, the projects receiving funds from the RDF must supply a written report detailing the project’s financial, environmental, and other benefits.

Radioactive water has spilled from Xcel Energy’s Prairie Island nuclear power plant near Red Wing, Minn., on two recent occasions, according to notifications the utility sent to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission this month.

On Monday, Xcel Energy said a 27-gallon leak containing traces of radioactive tritium occurred Friday. That spill occurred two days after Xcel officials told the commission that a similar but much larger spill had happened in November.

Xcel spokeswoman Mary Sandok said there was no danger to the public or the plant’s employees.

She said tritium was “a very low, energy-emitting radionuclide” and that Xcel’s groundwater-monitoring program had detected no increases in the element.

Nuclear Regulatory Commission spokeswoman Viktoria Mitlyng said the tritium concentration was well below the level the Environmental Protection Agency allows for drinking water and that the leak did not pose a health risk.

“It’s not a regulatory concern for us,” Mitlyng said.

She said such leaks don’t need to be reported to the commission unless the dosage exceeds what a person could safely experience over an entire year.

But Kevin Kamps, a radioactive-waste specialist with Beyond Nuclear, a Maryland-based watchdog group that focuses on the nuclear power industry, said it was irresponsible to claim there was no danger.

“We do take exception to that flippant disregard they have. Tritium is a clinically proven cause of cancer, birth deflects and genetic mutations,” Kamps said. “It’s long known that any exposure caries a health risk.”

The 1,076-megawatt plant is about 50 miles southeast of St. Paul. It generates enough electricity to power about 1 million homes.

On Friday, a pump failed to regulate condensate levels within the plant’s steam heat condenser system, Sandok said. Water condensed from heating system steam at the site’s main warehouse and overflowed to the ground.

Minneapolis-based Xcel has shut down the steam heat system while it investigates the cause of the pump failure, Sandok said.

The tritium level of Friday’s spill was 15,000 picocuries per liter, according to the filing.

The Environmental Protection Agency in 1976 set a contamination limit of 20,000 picocuries per liter of tritium for drinking water.

But just because the level is below the EPA’s limit does not mean there’s no risk, Kamps said.

“It’s long known that any exposure to radioactivity, no matter how small, still carries a risk of cancer,” he said. “And those risks accumulate over a lifetime.”

The spilled water also contained methoxy propylamine, ammonia and hydrazine, the notification said.

Two days before that spill, on Feb. 1, Xcel officials notified the Nuclear Regulatory Commission that a water leak “conservatively calculated to be up to 3,900 gallons” had occurred between Nov. 22 and Nov. 29.

The tritium contamination level of that spill was 9,430 picocuries per liter, according to the report.

Sandok confirmed that the spill came from the same tank and “under similar circumstances” as Friday’s spill.

When asked why Xcel had not notified officials of Friday’s spill sooner, Sandok said the spill occurred after business hours and the company’s permit allowed officials to report it the next business day, which was Monday.

As for reporting the November spill to the commission two months after the fact, Sandok said, it was not clear how much water had leaked until weeks later, after staff reviewed plant logs and interviewed personnel who’d observed the tank.

Eric Pehle, spokesman for the Prairie Island Indian Community, whose reservation sits 600 yards from the power plant, replied: “That response in and of itself explains the concerns the community has. If Xcel doesn’t know how much is leaking from the plant, how is the community supposed to feel?

“Eventually something’s going to happen, and it’s going to be too late,” Pehle added, saying Xcel’s groundwater-monitoring system for the community has registered unexplained spikes of tritium over time. The community was notified of Friday’s spill on Monday and of the November spill last week.

Minnesota Pollution Control Agency spokesman Sam Brungardt said the state’s Homeland Security and Emergency Management team was involved with the November spill.

“It was a pretty big to-do,” Brungardt said.

Prairie Island had a chlorine leak Jan. 4 that triggered the plant’s first emergency alert in four decades of operation.

Tad Vezner can be reached at or 651-228-5461. Leslie Brooks Suzukamo can be reached at or 651-228-5475.


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