How big is the nuclear danger?

MONTICELLO, MINNESOTA - Thirty times in the past four years, Red Wing police and firefighters responded to emergency calls at the Prairie Island nuclear plant — most minor, but each carrying extra tension about what those first responders would encounter.

In Monticello, a fire department designed for a town of 11,000 people stood at the ready when a 13-ton valve box controlling steam pressure collapsed at the nuclear power plant three years ago, shutting it down for days.

Now, with Xcel Energy winning approval to store more radioactive waste at the plants, officials in Red Wing and Monticello say the added safety risks they manage as homes to the state's two nuclear power plants are increasing.

In a move already drawing criticism, the two cities are asking that $13 million currently sent each year by Xcel Energy to the federal government for radioactive waste disposal instead be kept in Minnesota so that state and local officials can start planning for how to manage the risk of a nuclear crisis.

If that does not happen, Red Wing — which will spend up to $110,000 on a high-profile lobbying firm — wants legislators to create new state fees to help pay for its public safety costs.

The proposal is stirring familiar passions over nuclear energy, pitting those who worry that there is still no long-term solution on nuclear waste storage against those who see nuclear power as an underused energy source with a long, mostly safe, track record.

Nearly a third of Minnesotans who use Xcel Energy draw electricity from one of the company's two nuclear power plants. A group of unions, politicians and business leaders announced in November that it would seek to overturn the state's 15-year ban on building more plants.

The two cities' stance is largely driven by the Obama administration's decision to suspend the decades-old plan for a nuclear waste storage facility at Yucca Mountain in Nevada. Red Wing and Monticello officials said a solution now appears years away.


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