Nuke 'Em!

Xcel energy spearheads a high-stakes plan to store nuclear waste on a tiny, dirt-poor Indian reservation in the Utah desert

From the entrance to Treasure Island Casino, Joe Campbell can look out over the field he used to farm. "That's where my back porch was," he says, pointing to a stand of cottonwoods behind the Prairie Island Indian tribe's big, modern community center. Then Campbell points out another of the tiny southern Minnesota reservation's landmarks: the twin pinkish-gray bulbs of Prairie Island's nuclear power plant.

Campbell, who's lived on the reservation since 1970, is a lifelong, irascible opponent of nuclear power in general, and the Prairie Island plant in particular. "They started buying up the land from the farmers around 1958," he says. "At the time they said it was a steam plant. Well, they never said where the steam was going to come from. Most people alive today don't know what happened here."

From the casino, we drive along a road that curves just outside the reservation's boundary, toward a swampy inlet by the shore of the Mississippi. Campbell points out a spot along the bank where hot water coming from the plant causes the river to bubble. Nearby, invisible except for some security cameras mounted on telephone poles, is what we've come to see: the concrete pad where Xcel Energy stores the waste from its nuclear plant. "When the leaves are on the trees you can't even tell it's there," Campbell explains.

The pad is a little larger than a football field, protected by a 20-foot-high earth berm, a double chain-link fence, and a lone security guard carrying a machine gun. Clustered at the pad's center are 17 17-foot-tall white cylinders. The casks themselves have 9.5-inch-thick steel walls designed to withstand floods, fires, and even missile strikes. Jon Kapitz is a waste-storage specialist with Nuclear Management Company, which runs Xcel's Prairie Island and Monticello nuclear plants (together, the two produce around 20 percent of the state's electricity). According to Kapitz, the radiation coming from the casks is nearly undetectable at the perimeter of the pad. "They're giving off about three-fourths of a kilowatt each. That's around a dozen hair dryers' worth of heat," he says. "You can really only tell the difference in the winter, when you compare it to putting your hands on the cold steel fence."

Which is good, since the casks contain some of the nastiest stuff on the planet. Prairie Island's twin reactors are fueled by zirconium rods, which are in turn filled with pencil-thin uranium pellets. Every 18 to 20 months, spent fuel rods are cycled out of the reactors. They're then moved to a large pool of water inside the reactor complex, where they're left to cool for 10 years. After a decade, bunches of rods, called fuel assemblies, are taken out of the water and sealed inside those giant helium-filled steel casks. At this point, the rods are still radioactive enough to kill anyone standing nearby in a matter of minutes. While their radioactivity continues to dissipate exponentially, they will remain dangerous enough for 10,000 years that they must be kept out of the groundwater supply.

No one, obviously, is eager to welcome these casks as neighbors. Just recall the rancor attending last year's debate over waste storage at Prairie Island. In 1994, when Xcel (then called Northern States Power) first asked the state to allow the casks at its Prairie Island site, the utility promised that it would never return to the Legislature requesting more storage capacity; when, inevitably, Xcel did just that, a firestorm erupted. Prairie Island tribal members complained that the waste would compromise their safety; environmentalists complained that there was no permanent solution to the waste-storage crunch; and Xcel complained that without the extra capacity, Prairie Island would have to shut down well before its government operating license expired in 2013. Only after much political horse-trading did a compromise emerge: In exchange for permission to store 12 more casks at Prairie Island, Xcel had to increase its investment in renewable energy, and compensate the Prairie Island tribe.

Yet, while last year's deal may have bought Prairie Island some time, it did nothing to solve the problem that many consider the nuclear industry's Achilles' heel: What to do with the tons of deadly waste generated every year by the nation's 103 commercial nuclear reactors? Quietly and mostly behind the scenes, Xcel has pursued an expensive, controversial plan B to decamp its--and, indeed, all of America's--nuclear waste to an impoverished stretch of Utah scrubland. To Xcel and its partner energy corporations, it's simply the only way to keep cheap and efficient nuclear plants running; to the environmentalists and politicians opposed to the idea, it's a Chernobyl waiting to happen.

 

Skull Valley, located some 45 miles southwest of Salt Lake City, is a forlorn stretch of desert between the low-slung Cedar and Stansbury mountain ranges. In the late 19th century, a young Samuel Clemens happened to pass through the area. His assessment: "One of the most rocky, wintry, repulsive wastes that our country or any other can exhibit." At the center of this is the reservation of the Skull Valley Goshute band--a tribe of some 120 enrolled members, only two dozen of whom live at Skull Valley. In the Shoshone tongue, Goshute means "people of the dust."

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