Xcel promotes nuclear power at State Fairby Stephanie Hemphill, Minnesota Public Radio
At the Minnesota State Fair, in the dairy building, right next to the butter sculptures, where you line up to get a malt -- you can also get an introduction to nuclear power. Xcel Energy has had a nuclear power booth at the Fair for six years. Xcel operates two nuclear plants, at Monticello and Prairie Island. And it has plans in the works to expand output at both plants. We visited the booth to find out what Minnesotans think about nuclear power as an energy option.
Falcon Heights, Minn. — High gas prices are prompting people to think more than they usually do about energy -- energy of all kinds; maybe not so much at the state fair. But some people spent some time at Xcel Energy's nuclear power booth. They watched video displays on how nuclear power plants work, and the safety features at the plants.
Most folks stopped at the booth just long enough to enter the drawing for a lawn chair and a duffel bag. And many of them seemed uninformed about nuclear power.
When asked, several visitors admitted they didn't know enough about nuclear power to have an opinion on it.
"I don't know much about it..."
"I don't really know much about that..."
"I don't know the effects it has on the environment; I'd have to learn more about it."
That lack of knowledge about nuclear power is why Xcel has the booth here. The company is applying for permission to expand production at its two nuclear plants, and to store more radioactive waste on site. Xcel gets nearly a third of its electricity from the two plants.
Terry Pickens is director of Nuclear Regulatory Policy at Xcel Energy.
"It's our most reliable form of baseload generation," he says. "It operates 24 hours-a-day, seven days-a-week. It's the best, most reliable form of emissions-free generation that we have available."
The operation of a nuclear power plant doesn't emit greenhouse gases, like a coal-burning plant does. But activities necessary to nuclear power like mining, processing and transporting the uranium do emit greenhouse gases. That's called life-cycle emissions. Experts differ on how much, but nuclear power is generally placed close to wind and solar in its life-cycle emissions.
The big concerns about nuclear plants are the fear of accidents and the difficult problem of what to do with the waste. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is supposed to figure out how to protect the public and the environment from radioactive waste for up to one million years.
The government plans to put the waste in an underground tunnel at Yucca Mountain in Nevada, but political opposition has delayed that process. It was supposed to open 10 years ago; now the government hopes it will be ready in 2020. But Congress has been allocating less and less money for Yucca Mountain.
The company's storage on land is safe for at least 100 years, according to Xcel's Terry Pickens.
"The fuel a ceramic and it's encased in stainless steel," he says. "It's a completely dry environment, surrounded by inert gas helium inside a metal cask. So there's not really any active aging mechanisms -- so that fuel, and being stored in those types of containers, can be stored for a very long time, safely."
There has not been a serious accident at a U.S. nuclear plant since the partial core meltdown at Three Mile Island in 1979.
But each year the company that operates the Prairie Island plant for Xcel files a report with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. It lists emissions of various radioactive materials, in tiny amounts.
In 2007, there were two abnormal releases. One wasn't detected until perhaps six months after it started; the company calculated about 3,000 cubic feet of gases had leaked into the environment, including radioactive argon, krypton, and xenon.
In 2006, the company reported 10 abnormal releases during refueling operations.
At the small amounts reported, risks of increased cancer incidence are considered small compared to other risks such as smoking or being overweight.
All that might be too much detail for the people waiting in line for an ice cream cone not far from the exhibit. But some of these fair-goers have made up their minds.
Mike Chlan, from New Market, Minnesota, is all for nuclear power.
"We should have lots of nuclear because wind is not very good: it's subsidized by the government," he says. "Nuclear is clean, takes up less acreage, it's a better deal."
Standing next to him in the ice cream line is Tony Richardson, from Minneapolis, who prefers solar power.
"The problem with nuclear is you end up with the spent fuel cells, and nobody wants that in their backyard," he says. "We've got this wonderful power source hanging in the sky that shines every single day; it doesn't make much sense not to use it."
A poll done in early August by USA Today and Gallup indicated that most Americans put nuclear power near the bottom of their list of preferred energy options.
The plan for expanding power production at Prairie Island gets an initial public hearing September 10th in Red Wing.
- All Things Considered, 08/27/2008, 5:23 p.m.