OPINION | “Unusual event” at Prairie Island nuclear facility reminds us our watershed is at stake

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There was an “unusual event” on March 6 at the Prairie Island nuclear plant that seems to have escaped the local media but caught the attention of newspapers in western Wisconsin, the Sacramento Bee and San Francisco Chronicle in California and the Miami Herald in Florida.

According to the official Xcel Energy statement: “Officials at the Prairie Island nuclear plant near Red Wing, Minn., declared a Notification of Unusual Event today at 6:24 a.m. Plant officials made the declaration when they received indication that there was a decrease in water levels inside the Reactor Coolant System (RCS) in Unit 2, which is currently undergoing a refueling outage.”

How could water levels in the cooling system get low enough to reach dangerous levels? There are only two alternatives. Either the operators failed to notice the water level was getting low, or there was a leak in the system. Xcel: “Operators took immediate actions to respond, and further investigation revealed there was not a leak in the system.” Are they sure? How much confidence should we have in their investigation? On Feb. 16, less than three weeks before, federal regulators cited Xcel Energy for a serious security lapse at Prairie Island. After determining there was no leak and refilling the cooling system, the “Unusual Event” was cancelled at 11:36 am.

What’s at stake?

This 38-year-old plant, which was originally scheduled to be shut down eight years ago, has been kept alive by Xcel’s skillful lobbying of a compliant legislature. If there would have been a leak then the entire water table of the Mississippi River watershed area would have been put at risk. What does that mean? Wikipedia:

“The Mississippi River has the world’s fourth largest drainage basin (“watershed” or “catchment”). The basin covers more than 1,245,000 square miles, including all or parts of 32 U.S. states and two Canadian provinces. The drainage basin empties into the Gulf of Mexico, part of the Atlantic Ocean. The total catchment of the Mississippi River covers nearly 40% of the landmass of the continental United States.” And, while water runs downhill, radiation runs in all directions. So any radiation leak would affect the entire Mississippi River watershed—that’s the drinking water of 40% of the country.

After the Fukushima nuclear disaster in Japan last year, concerns were raised about the safety of American nuclear power plants. All nuclear power plants are essentially the same. They all use nuclear power to heat water to create steam to drive turbines. The Prairie Island plant was closed for about a year because of safety issues cited by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and reopened in 2010.

There are two possible natural disasters that could trigger a Fukushima disaster at Prairie Island. There could be a flood. When they built the plant they considered the possibility of a flood, and they concluded that a flood of the proportion necessary to flood the reactors and cause a nuclear meltdown would be a once in a thousand years occurrence. Climate change and global warming have caused many “once in a thousand years” events to seem more likely, so the possibility of an epic flood must now be taken more seriously.

The other natural disaster would be an earthquake. The Mississippi River flows down the fault line of two moving tectonic plates. The New Madrid Fault caused an earthquake in 1811 that changed the course of the River at New Madrid, Missouri. Tremors from this same fault in 1895 caused chimneys to tumble in St. Louis, and mild earthquakes have been felt as far north as Northern Illinois and Iowa. Do the tectonic plates reach all the way to Minnesota? Probably. Let’s hope we never find out. But there is a possibility that the Prairie Island plant could be damaged in the same way as the plant at Fukushima. The U. S Federal Emergency Management Agency warned in November of 2008 that an earthquake along the New Madrid fault could produce “widespread and catastrophic” damage. And it’s probably not a question of if the plates move again, but when.

And what do they do with the spent radioactive rods that are used to generate steam once they’ve cooled down and are no longer useful for creating heat. They still have a radioactive half-life of hundreds of thousands of years. These are the gifts we are giving future generations: deadly, radioactive fuel rods that could poison and kill them. Prairie Island started to run out of space to store the rods as early as 1991. The Minnesota State Legislature said that they could store spent rods in 17 casks above ground in 1994. In 2003 the state legislature increased that amount to 48 casks.

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission granted Prairie Island a 20-year extension on their licenses that were due to expire in 2013 and 2014, and, now, they will continue to generate electricity and spent fuel rods until 2034. Where will they store them? Above ground in dry casks? Isn’t this a disaster waiting to happen?

Bobby Dylan probably asked it best:

Man thinks ’cause he rules the earth he can do with it as he please
And if things don’t change soon, he will
Oh, man has invented his doom
First step was touching the moon
Now, there’s a woman on my block
She just sit there as the night grows still
She say who’s gonna take away his license to kill?