Growing concern over nuclear power has spurred more interest in the Prairie Island nuclear power plant, and at a meeting Thursday night the public had a chance to grill federal officials with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission about the plant's extension.
Xcel is applying to the NRC for a 20-year license extension and permission to produce more power at the plant. So far, the NRC has not rejected any license extensions at dozens of plants around the country.
The public meeting in Red Wing was meant to be routine for the NRC to review Xcel Energy's management of the Prairie Island nuclear power plant. About 60 people attended the meeting — nearly twice as many as came last time — to air concerns about Prairie Island and about the safety of nuclear power in general.
During 2010, Xcel was under special scrutiny by the NRC because of a pattern of human errors that indicated a problem with safety awareness. Xcel worked hard throughout the year, reducing its infractions from 30 in 2009 to 15 in 2010.
Charlotte Easton, from Lake City, said that's a record with a dual message.
"I really hand it to you guys that you improved your human error, but it also points out to me the Achilles heel of nuclear power: there's always going to be human error," Easton said.
The NRC's Jack Giessner, who supervises inspections in the upper Midwest, said that's why the commission depends on a defense-in-depth policy to provide backup behind the backup.
"But I understand your point," Giessner said. He said the purpose of the meeting was to hear concerns and ideas.
Polling shows more Americans are opposed to new nuclear power plants following the crisis in Japan. Leah Foushee, who lives near Red Wing, said she's watched as scientists trace radiation from the Fukushima plant in Japan long distances. She said it's time that Xcel or the NRC tracked radioactive releases from Prairie Island.
"Whose garden it goes to, so if you don't want to go out there in your garden that particular day when the plant is releasing these materials you can stay in your house," Foushee said. "We have a right to know when you are doing these things."
The answer came from Jack Giessner, who said some of the emissions are more-or-less continuous, but the radiation also is continuously monitored and must stay below certain levels. Periodically Xcel takes samples in a prescribed area around the plant.
"The fact that we're not sampling 10, 20 miles out is not in the framework," he said.
Giessner said they're comfortable that the vegetation, milk, fluid and livestock sampling is ensuring that they're keeping the public safe.
Every other year, local safety officials cooperate with Xcel in preparedness exercises. But one participant at the meeting said so far, they haven't included the idea of staying in the house when an accident happens. In Japan, residents in a zone around the damaged Fukushima plant were advised to stay indoors for the duration.
NRC officials said they would bring that suggestion to local disaster planning groups.
The NRC is paying for a new study by the National Academy of Sciences designed to identify any health effects of living near a nuclear power plant. The last such study was done 20 years ago and only looked at deaths from cancer. The new study will include incidences of cancer as well as deaths.
In March, the Legislature voted to remove the state's 15-year-old moratorium on new nuclear plants. The issue is being negotiated with Gov. Mark Dayton.