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Group contests plant's safety

A group of area residents and environmentalists hope their input will halt Xcel Energy's plans to store more spent nuclear waste and increase electrical generating capacity at Prairie Island nuclear plant.

The Prairie Island Nuclear Generating Plant Study Group submitted a legal brief Friday to Administrative Law Judge Richard Luis, who will wade through thousands of documents and other evidence before making a recommendation on Xcel's requests to the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission.

Xcel is currently seeking state permits to house up to 35 more casks at the nuclear plant and increase its electrical generating capacity by 164 megawatts.

The company also has filed a federal application to renew the plant's operating licenses for up to 20 more years. The current licenses expire in 2013 and 2014.

Friday marked the end of the comment period. Luis will have 30 days to decide whether Xcel met the criteria to get the suggested projects approved.

"We'll all wait and see what the administrative law judge decides," said Brian Zelenak, Xcel Energy's manager of regulatory administration. "Then we'll continue to move forward."

Eagerly waiting for that decision will be the grassroots study group, partially composed of members who served on a Minnesota Department of Commerce-appointed task force that participated in the environmental review process for Xcel's applications.

Luis stretched a deadline and allowed the group to take part this summer in the contested case hearing.

"We had access to a level of evidence that usually citizens don't have," said Paula Maccabee, an attorney representing the study group. "We've had the opportunity to make a far better case because of that access. We asked a lot of questions no one else asked."

Maccabee said the group opposes the uprate and increasing spent nuclear storage capacity for environmental, public health and safety reasons.

The group also wants radiation and waste heat monitoring significantly improved, Maccabee said.

"This is their home. When something is creating a risk in your home, then people fight back," Maccabee said. "Xcel Energy is a formidable opponent. but a lot of evidence suggests this plant not adequately monitored, this plant is not safe, and there are better choices for energy."

Zelenak disagrees.

He said the nuclear plant is a valuable regional asset and that Xcel officials have proven to Luis that the uprate and increased storage are needed - and in ratepayers' best interest. The casks and uprate will be safe to nearby residents and the environment, he said.

"We've shown within the record the plant meets state and federal requirements and we will continue to do so," Zelenak said.

City of Red Wing officials also participated in the contested case hearing.

City Council member Lisa Bayley said the city supports the nuclear plant but would like state officials and Xcel to address several concerns, including long-term storage of spent nuclear fuel and compensation for the city's diminishing resources.

She said city officials are optimistic Luis will address their concerns.

"It's like trying to read tea leaves. We just don't know," Bayley said. "But we're hopeful. We feel good about having raised the issues."

The Minnesota Public Utilities Commission will review Luis' recommendation and also have access to the record generated during the contested case hearing.

The PUC's decision then will be passed on to the state legislators.