Xcel's Monticello nuclear power plant opened in the early 1970s. The plant stores spent radioactive fuel from 35 years of operation in water-filled pools at the facility's main building.
But now the power company needs more room to store that radioactive waste. The solution, according to Xcel's Jim Alders, is to build a three-acre above ground site where spent dry nuclear fuel could be stored in metal casks.
"The containers are large 20-ton containers that are sealed by welding. Those containers are then brought out to the storage facility, and placed in large concrete vaults with reinforced concrete walls three to four feet thick," Alders said.
Two guarded perimeters would surround the $55 million dollar project. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission, or NRC, maintains this kind of storage is secure from terrorist attacks, and safe for the environment. The company's Prairie Island nuclear power plant has used similar above ground storage for the past decade.
Both Prairie Island and the Monticello plant plan to eventually send spent fuel to a proposed federal government nuclear waste site. The Department of Energy hopes to store waste at Nevada's Yucca Mountain.
“We can either decide this stuff is permanent, this stuff is toxic, we need to figure out how we're going to live with it. Or we need to decide we don't want to live with it on a permanent basis and we need to stop creating it,”Beth Goodpaster
But there's been numerous delays, and now government officials say it'll be 2017 before Yucca Mountain can accept radioactive waste. Alders says in the meantime power plants are seeking short term local solutions.
"There's nearly 30 of these dry storage facilities around the country at nuclear power plant sites. The Department of Energy hasn't moved along as quickly as everyone had hoped. As the result power plants around the country are having to add additional spent fuel storage on their sites," Alders said.
Alders is confident that within a few decades the government will be able to store all of the nation's nuclear waste. For that reason Xcel considers its above ground storage plan as only temporary. Some environmental advocates, like Beth Goodpaster see that as wishful thinking. "The likelihood is that this waste is here to stay. Are we proposing a storage solution that's consistent with that? I think the answer honestly has to be no," Goodpaster said.
Goodpaster, who is with Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy, worries the federal government won't come up with a national storage plan anytime soon. She's also concerned that if a storage facility opens up it'll be filled almost immediatly, and won't have space for any nuclear waste from Minnesota.
"We can either decide this stuff is permanent, this stuff is toxic, we need to figure out how we're going to live with it. Or we need to decide we don't want to live with it on a permanent basis and we need to stop creating it," Goodpaster said.
While the PUC has given its stamp of approval to the plan, lawmakers could still weigh in on the issue in the upcoming legislative session. Goodpaster hopes lawmakers take that opportunity to ask serious questions about Xcel's long term nuclear waste storage plans.
Xcel officials say if everything goes as planned, they'll start building the facility in the summer of 2006, and start storing radioactive waste there in 2008.