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Top 10 of 2011: Nuclear plant relicensed, uprate unclear

Prairie Island nuclear plant will be up and running in the area at least until 2034 after the Nuclear Regulatory Commission renewed the facility's licenses in June.

After a three-year review, the NRC renewed the nuclear plant's unit licenses, extending them 20 years each to 2033 and 2034.

Local government entities were keeping an eye on the renewal process. As city Finance Director Marshall Hallock and others have said, the upgrades at the nuclear plant would increase the tax base in the area, giving the city and county a chance to capture more revenue without necessarily passing on the cost to residents and other taxpayers.

But a plan to increase capacity at the plant is uncertain in light of rising costs and delays. This fall, Xcel Energy announced it was pausing to re-evaluate the proposed capacity expansion.

"While our current analysis suggests the proposed capacity upgrade at Prairie Island remains cost effective, longer than anticipated federal reviews and updated cost information prompt us to seek concurrence from stakeholders that the project should proceed," Judy Poferl, president and CEO of Northern States Power Co.-Minnesota said in a statement.

Xcel officials said they want to review the details before taking on two expensive parts of the uprate program -- completing the licensing process and making equipment commitments.

The uprate would require a license amendment on top of the recently renewed licenses. Xcel said it has spent more than $60 million to get to this stage in the licensing process and estimates at least another $20 million to complete the process.

Increasing capacity at the plant also would require some new equipment and upgrades.

The NRC recently asked for more detailed design information in the capacity expansion request before it begins its review, delaying the start of the evaluation, officials added.

Xcel plans to continue assessing the project and will give an analysis to the Public Utilities Commission in mid-2012, officials said. The commission also will take public comment. The PUC's review could take several months, Xcel officials said.

The plant also faced a citation for a violation regarding safety-related battery chargers this year.

The charger would "lock up" and stop charging during tests that simulate losing off-site power, the NRC found. Though Xcel challenged it, the commission gave the issue a "white" classification.

A "white" characterization means the issue has low to moderate safety significance. The NRC labels issues at plants on a color scale: "Green" is the lowest, followed by "white." Those posing more serious safety concerns can get a "yellow" or "red" rating.

Site Vice President Mark Schimmel said the finding is based on a condition that existed in the past. The chargers on Unit 1 have since been replaced, and those on Unit 2 are slated for replacement during the next refueling outage, he said. Xcel completed a fuel outage this summer.

Danielle Killey

Danielle Killey covers local government for the South Washington County Bulletin. She has worked as a reporter for other Forum Communications newspapers since 2011. She graduated from the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities with a journalism degree.

(651) 459-4629
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