Megawatts and Margins

NSP hands the keys for its Minnesota reactors to a holding company. Is this part of a dangerous chain reaction in the nuclear power industry?

Crocker is not alone in his concerns. In March the Prairie Island Indian Community, whose reservation abuts NSP's Prairie Island plant, also requested that federal regulators re-examine the matter. "All NSP has demonstrated is that it wishes to outsource all of its nuclear operations to a newly formed company with no history, virtually no current employees and no record of performance on which it can be judged," the Prairie Island Indian Community petition states. "As for the financial considerations, the community and the commission are told they are not relevant, with no discussion of the impact of divorcing financial responsibility from operational responsibility."

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission has not yet acted on either of the petitions, nor on a third filed by environmental attorney Carol Overland. According to Jan Strasma, a spokesman at the commission's regional headquarters in Chicago, the matter is now under review by the commission's legal arm. The commission staff, however, has already come to its own conclusion in a report released last month recommending the license transfer: NMC "need not be reviewed concerning financial qualifications" because the liabilities for the plant remain with its owner, NSP.

That doesn't do much to satisfy the critics, however. "Do I believe that when [NSP] says 'We're not going to try to shift the liability to this assetless corporation and we're going to keep it ourselves?'" asks state Rep. John Marty (DFL-Roseville). "I wish I had confidence in that. But no, I don't. I think they're in the driver's seat and they're controlling every step of the process."

The Reactor Watchdog Project's Paul Gunter contends the Nuclear Regulatory Commission has been quick to "rubber stamp" these transactions in an effort to keep the troubled industry afloat. "This is all a sleight of hand, we believe, to move liabilities around, and milk the ratepayers in the process," he says. "This is just the first move. There are many moves left, as the utilities work hand in hand with the regulators to develop their exit strategies. But it's easy to be lost in all the smoke and mirrors."

"I think we're going to have to keep our eye on the pea in this shell game that's being played out on the nation's utility grid," he adds.

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