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Xcel: Plant was never out of compliance

Safety was compromised, but federal requirements were not.

That was the message delivered Tuesday by Xcel officials from the Prairie Island nuclear plant, as they met with regulators from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to discuss a May preliminary finding that flagged the facility for failing to evaluate a flood risk to important safety-related equipment.

"Our position is that we currently and always have been in compliance with our licensing requirements," Xcel site Vice President Mark Schimmel told NRC officials gathered Tuesday at the Region III office near Chicago.

Even so, he said, "we have modified the plant to basically be compliant to the most conservative interpretation of those requirements."

The conference was held to provide Xcel officials with an opportunity to respond to the NRC's preliminary findings before the agency makes a final enforcement decision.

Schimmel said federal rules for nuclear plants do not clearly lay out requirements to protect safety equipment like emergency diesel generators and safety-related batteries from floods caused by a breakage in piping.

A preliminary finding issued by the NRC on May 27, however, said the plant's failure to protect this equipment from a potential flood caused by an event like an earthquake or a tornado did amount to a violation of those requirements -- and a risk of "greater than very low" safety significance.

The disagreement stems from opaque guidelines from the 1970s, when a different culture prevailed in nuclear regulation, according to Steve West, the NRC regional director of reactor projects.

Back then, he said, safety guidelines were issued informally.

"If you wanted something done," he said, "you would issue a letter saying, 'You should do this. It will make your plant safer.'"

It wasn't until later that more stringent requirements were set, according to West. That was after the Prairie Island facility was built in 1973. It's why Xcel officials pointed to decades-old letters -- rather than hard-set requirements -- to make their points Tuesday.

It wasn't until a few days ago, however, that plant officials say they determined that they were never out of compliance. Before, they had assumed that the risk presented to flood equipment was, in fact, out of step with federal nuclear plant requirements.

"It's embarrassing to conclude that we always have been in compliance," said Schimmel. "Should it be this difficult for us to understand? The answer is no."

Plant officials said that they dug through every licensing document possible to come to their conclusion. Regional NRC Administrator Mark Satorius said that he was disappointed that Xcel had not submitted the results of this research to the NRC before or during the conference.

"In my view, you take what you got and you put it on the table," he said.

The NRC will now meet in the weeks ahead to decide whether to take enforcement action against the facility. That decision is expected in the next four to six weeks, provided that no further extensive research is needed, according to the NRC.

Prairie Island Indian Community attorney Phil Mahowald was in attendance at the conference to give a statement from the community, which sits near the reservation. He said whether or not the plant was in violation of federal requirements, it still should have notified the community of any risk to safety-related equipment.

"When those items are not disclosed to the community or to the public, but are instead brought to the public through the NRC, that erodes the trust the public has in the transparency and openness the plant demonstrates," he said.