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NRC, tribe cooperating

The Prairie Island Indian Community will state its case Nov. 8 against extending the local nuclear plant's waste storage permit.

The tribe will do so with something new its arsenal: a cooperative agreement with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

Mark Satorius called the memorandum of understanding "a significant step in NRC's effort to enhance government-to-government consultations with federally recognized Native American tribes." He directs the NRC's Office of Federal and State Materials.

The agreement states the NRC will lead the environmental review and retain final authority of whether to renew the neighboring Prairie Island nuclear plant's storage permit.

The tribe will have standing as a cooperating agency throughout the review. The NRC will give extra weight to the tribe's expertise regarding historic and archeological resources, socioeconomoics, land use and environmental justice.

Plant owner Xcel Energy's storage license expires Oct. 19, 2013. Because the federal government hasn't met its 1998 deadline to create a national waste repository, the utility has applied to extend the Prairie Island nuclear plant's onsite dry-cask storage until 2053.

The tribe argues approval will put Minnesotans at considerable risk.

"Four more decades of storage could expose all of us to the vulnerabilities of aging facilities, human error and natural disasters," Tribal Council President Johnny Johnson said in a statement.

"But the real problem with the request is that it's based on the fiction that it's only a 40-year extension for only 48 dry casks," he continued. "There's already enough nuclear waste in the spent fuel pool to fill another 30 casks -- 11 more than the 48 casks in the current license, and in just 20 more years of plant operation the plant will generate enough waste to fill 98 casks."

The NRC in 2011 extended the plant's Unit 1 and Unit 2 licenses from 2013 and 2014 to 2033 and 2034.

The tribe contends that without Yucca Mountain, which President Barack Obama removed from consideration as the federal storage site early in 2010, there is nowhere for the waste to go and that means 98 temporary casks could become permanent for 2,500 tons of radioactive used fuel rods. Yucca Mountain was the only national storage site under consideration.

"You're basically condemning the waste to Prairie Island forever," tribal legal counsel Phil Mahowald said.

Xcel filed in June 2011 for more cask storage. In June 2012, that application appeared on the federal register. The tribe filed papers Aug. 24 petitioning to intervene and request a hearing. The tribe did so primarily to preserve its rights as the process proceeds.

Mahowald said a major concern is that current federal regulations governing waste storage don't look beyond 40 years. That time period has become artificial because there is nowhere for waste to go in 40, 50, 100 or maybe 200 years.

"We believe that the regulations have become untethered or disconnected from reality," he said.

In addition to a potentially stronger status with the NRC under the cooperative agreement, the tribe takes a June ruling from the U.S. Court of Appeals in Washington, D.C., into the Nov. 8 hearing in St. Paul. The court said regulators can't just fix an arbitrary date when they haven't examined that there may not be a federal repository ever.

"We think the tribe has a very compelling story," Mahowald said.

Anne Jacobson

Anne Jacobson has been editor of the Republican Eagle since December 2003. 

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