When George W. Bush blew through St. Paul last May, he came with a dual purpose. On one hand, the president took the occasion--a speech at downtown's RiverCentre--to unveil his national energy plan, a far-reaching and controversial agenda calling for, among other things, increased domestic oil exploration and nuclear power production. On the other, Bush was in town to stump for outgoing Mayor Norm Coleman, the Republican Party's anointed challenger to incumbent DFL Sen. Paul Wellstone.
"I think it's important for all of you to know that when Norm calls over there in Washington, I'll answer," Bush told the crowd.
When it comes to energy policy, Coleman isn't just Bush's preferred candidate, however. A recent report by the Washington, D.C.-based consumer-advocacy group Public Citizen shows that Coleman has received more money from nuclear-industry political action committees (PACs) than all but three Senate candidates nationwide--including incumbents seeking reelection. According to the report, which was based on Federal Elections Commission (FEC) filings, Coleman's campaign has thus far garnered $43,250 from companies belonging to the Nuclear Energy Institute, the industry's trade group. That total was exceeded only by Rep. Lindsey Graham, a Republican running for an open Senate seat in South Carolina, and Republican incumbents Bob Smith of New Hampshire and Pete Domenici of New Mexico. Wellstone, the report noted, has received nothing from nuclear-industry PACs.
To critics of nuclear power, it looks as though the industry is flexing its newfound political muscle. "It's no secret that the administration's energy plan calls for a whole new generation of nuclear power plants," says Diana McKeown of the Minnesota Clean Water Action Alliance, an environmental group that lobbies against nuclear power. "The industry perceives Coleman as someone who's tied to the industry, and who will be favorable to their policy. It's not hard to connect the dots." (Coleman's campaign did not respond to repeated requests for comment last week.)
Utilities invested in nuclear power have a great deal at stake, McKeown continues, because of a pending plan to ship 77,000 tons of radioactive waste from the country's 103 nuclear power plants to an underground storage facility in Yucca Mountain, Nevada. Transportation of the waste, by train and truck, could begin as soon as 2010, and is expected to take more than two decades. However, the plan, which has already cost $8 billion, has been mired in a legal and legislative morass for more than 20 years. (One of the project's staunchest proponents during the Nineties was then Minnesota Sen. Rod Grams.)
Despite the Bush administration's support, the Yucca Mountain project may still be far from a fait accompli. In April Nevada Gov. Kenny Guinn--a Republican--rejected Bush's approval of the project. Though the U.S. House of Representatives voted on May 8 to override Guinn's decision, the plan must still be approved by the federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission, as well as the Democrat-controlled Senate, where some legislators, including Wellstone, have expressed opposition to transporting the waste across the country.
The looming congressional debate is particularly important for St. Paul's Xcel Energy, which operates two reactors at Prairie Island and one at Monticello. Prairie Island, which already stores 240 metric tons of spent fuel on an island in the Mississippi River, will be the first nuclear facility in the country to run out of storage space. Because 1994 state legislation prohibits the utility from storing additional waste at the site, Xcel will have to begin removing it by 2007--three years before shipments to Yucca Mountain are scheduled to begin. "Without some other options, the plant would have to shut down," acknowledges Xcel spokesperson Mary Sandok.
(Meanwhile, an Xcel-led plan to store 40,000 tons of waste at a private, temporary facility on the Goshute Indian Reservation in Skull Valley, Utah, has run into stiff opposition from local residents and politicians. One of the early champions of that project, Clinton-administration energy secretary Hazel O'Leary, was also the former NSP executive who spearheaded the push for increased waste storage at Prairie Island).
Xcel isn't the only party with a vested interest in removing the waste, either. In recent months, the Prairie Island Mdewakanton tribe, whose land abuts Xcel's nuclear plant, has shifted its financial support from Wellstone to Coleman, donating $25,000 to Coleman's campaign and $10,000 to the National Republican Congressional Committee.
Though Xcel's PAC has also thrown its support behind Coleman, to the tune of $8,000--individual Xcel employees contributed another $7,000--Xcel's director of government affairs, Scott Wilensky, says the donations were not directly linked to Prairie Island's storage crunch or the Yucca Mountain project. "We support candidates who we think will take a reasonable approach to national energy policy," Wilensky says, noting that nuclear power accounts for only a small percentage of the utility's holdings. Xcel has a compelling economic incentive to get rid of the waste, however: According to the same 1994 bill, the utility must contribute $500,000 per year to a renewable energy fund for each cask of spent fuel remaining on Prairie Island.
As McKeown sees it, Prairie Island could become a bellwether for the entire nuclear power industry: If the plant is forced to shut down because of waste-storage requirements, other utilities may shy away from investing in nuclear power. That, she says, gives power companies a compelling reason to grease the political wheels. "Xcel hasn't had as many [safety] problems at Prairie Island as a lot of other companies have, so the industry is watching this very closely," McKeown says. "They're waiting to see if Minnesota sets the precedent."