It’s hard to ignore the white cloud of steam that streaks across the sky driving north on Highway 94 from the Twin Cities.
Even on a clear day, the cloud hovers over the city of Monticello, a growing community of more than 12,000.
Tracing the cloud across the sky leads to a highly-guarded facility built on the Mississippi River – the Monticello Nuclear Generating Plant.
Lacking the iconic cooling silos, the plant blends well into the 215-acre territory it sits on, only a few miles away from downtown Monticello.
Built during the boom of nuclear power plants across the nation in the 1960s and ’70s, the plant supplies electricity to millions of residents in Minnesota.
Though there are only two nuclear power plants in Minnesota – the other being the Prairie Island Nuclear Power Plant in Red Wing – atomic energy accounts for 26 percent of the state’s power.
In February, the Minnesota Legislature voted to lift a moratorium that prevents building any future nuclear power plants in the state.
The fate of the moratorium, enacted in 1994 after concerns of the storage of spent fuel at the plants, is now in the hands of Gov. Mark Dayton.
But while Minnesota looks ready to jump on the nuclear bandwagon, any new nuclear plant is likely decades away.
The biggest issue, and a concern of supporters and critics alike, is the storage of the spent fuel – a debate that has raged on for decades and is still mired in political gridlock.
Closing down to fuel up
After passing through a thorough vehicle check and a gas detector that sniffs out bombs, visitors and workers go through a turnstile and into yet another security checkpoint.
There, an armed guard asks each person to walk slowly through a metal detector.
When visitors are finally through, a man behind a thick glass window hands them a badge with a small display that will measure the level of radiation they receive.
The level of radiation one receives during a day at the nuclear plant is typically very small, said Bryan Dixon, an engineer at the plant. He said exposure to radiation is greater on an airplane.
On any given day, the power plant is the workspace for 500 employees, but as the plant prepares for a routine shutdown in early March, its population has swelled to nearly 2,500 employees.
“Normally, it’s a ghost town,” Dixon said.
Many of these extra workers travel from one nuclear power plant to another across the country to perform the same tasks.
The outage, which occurs once every two years, begins almost six months before the reactor actually shuts down and requires replacing one-third of the fuel rods.
During this several-week outage, the workers will install a new $38 million steam dryer – a massive piece of equipment vital to the reactor.
But even with the new toy, the fuel rods must be replaced first. Comprised of pellets with uranium-285, the rods are lined up in an enclosure where they are bombarded by neutrons that split the atom and cause nuclear fission. A chain reaction ensues as the splitting of the atom releases more neutrons.
The pellets, no bigger than a fingernail, produce the energy equivalent of 1,780 pounds of coal or 149 gallons of oil, said Terry Pickens, director of nuclear regulatory policy at the Monticello plant.
Hundreds of these fuel rods are assembled together in the reactor where mounting pressure causes a large turbine to spin and generate electricity. The power then travels through the electrical substation and into homes.
With a capacity of more than 600 megawatts, the Monticello power plant can power 500,000 homes with its single reactor.
All the spent fuel from the power plant still resides on plant property, either securely held in dry storage casks or in the reactor itself.
“When you talk about [nuclear] waste produced, we’re not talking about mountains and mountains of radioactive spent fuel,” said Dixon, who explained that the amount of spent fuel in 40 years of operation at the plant can fit in an Olympic-sized swimming pool.
Even with the spent fuel sitting comfortably and securely on a concrete pad on the plant site, it is nowhere near a permanent resolution, Pickens said.
Like efforts to approve and build new nuclear plants, the project to create a national nuclear repository has stalled.
The Department of Energy selected Yucca Mountain, located 100 miles outside of Las Vegas, as the site for a national nuclear repository in the late 1980s. Under the original plan, the Yucca site would become the permanent home for all waste from U.S. nuclear power plants.
But legal challenges from opposition groups, especially from Nevada residents, have put the repository in limbo.
Former President George W. Bush supported the DOE in taking the next step toward a national repository, but President Barack Obama promised the people of Nevada he would abandon the project if he was elected, sparking cries from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. The NRC said the president doesn’t have the authority to kill the project.
“They keep kicking the can down the road,” said Minnesota Rep. Mike Beard, R-Shakopee.
Customers have already invested nearly $22 billion in the repository, Pickens said. With interest, that number easily exceeds $30 billion.
For every kilowatt-hour of energy they use, consumers pay a penny toward a repository site.
“The problem we have isn’t because we lack resources – it’s because we get in our own way,” said Beard, who supported lifting the moratorium and building a national repository site at Yucca Mountain.
“We have shown how technically it can be done – it’s just a matter of overcoming the political obstacles,” Pickens said. “It’s not if we’re going to solve it, it’s when – money is not the issue here.”
Obama established a commission to look into America’s nuclear future, especially the issue of spent-fuel storage.
The commission will be required to publish a report on its findings in June.
One recommendation the commission might make is a move toward centralized storage facilities, Pickens said. Similar to the ones already used at the Monticello plant, the waste would simply be centralized in regional sites under federal government supervision.
Up against the governer
Minnesota’s repeal of the nuclear moratorium will soon face Dayton.
The governor has made it clear he would like to see three conditions met before signing the repeal into law.
Protecting consumers, finding a solution to the waste storage problem and not producing weapons-grade plutonium are the three stipulations, said Katie Tinucci, spokeswoman for the governor. Dayton, however, has not made it clear whether he will sign or veto the bill as it stands.
Neither of Minnesota’s nuclear power plants produces uranium that could be used for a nuclear weapon, Pickens said.
As for protecting ratepayers, because of loan guarantees from the government, as long as the nuclear power plant becomes operational, ratepayers will be protected from the planning and development costs.
The price tag for a new nuclear power plant can exceed $6 billon, Pickens said, and even after ground is broken, there is no guarantee that it will be completed.
In the late 1970s, Xcel Energy purchased land in Wisconsin for a proposed nuclear power plant, but after the Three Mile Island reactor incident in Pennsylvania in 1979, the plans were recalled, costing consumers nearly $67 million.
“A lot of it was the uncertainty that was going to come with the public hearings,” Pickens said of the abandonment.
The process of getting approval to erect a new nuclear power plant is one that can take several years and is very difficult to predict, said Ivonne Couret, spokeswoman for the NRC.
Several applications must be submitted, and an environmental review is given. Next come public hearings and a final safety evaluation report before the NRC will approve a new reactor.
The newest reactor, the Watts Bar Nuclear Generating Station in Tennessee, became operational in 1996 after the NRC approved it in 1973.
As of June 2010, there were 18 pending applications for 28 new reactor units in the U.S., Couret said.
Doubt and danger
University professor Doug Tiffany said the greater danger to companies investing in nuclear energy is not a nuclear meltdown but a financial one.
“There is very little technical risk,” said Tiffany, extension professor of renewable energy.
“Just because nuclear power works [and] we have experience doing it doesn’t mean it’s not without risk from a financial standpoint.”
Pulling the projects off on time is the biggest impediment, he said. With money coming in from investors, the longer it takes to build the plant, the more interest accrues.
“The tough part is, once you say it’s going to start and you get the thing built, when will it really start [producing power]? That is really the big gamble,” Tiffany said.
In the end, the public takes most of the risk, he said.
Xcel Energy, which owns both nuclear power plants in Minnesota, has made it clear that it’s not going to build a new nuclear power plant even if the moratorium is lifted, Pickens said.
While the company still supports the repeal, Pickens said Xcel has enough energy capacity to power the state until at least 2025. This, however, does not extinguish the fire against the moratorium.
“We’ve taken two of the most important base-load sources, coal and nuclear power, completely off the table for their consideration moving forwards,” said Beard, who has also supported coal-based legislation.
“That sends a message that we’re not really serious – we’re political and shallow.
“By repealing the ban, it sends a very strong message to very creative people that we are open for business,” Beard said.
Rep. Tom Anzelc, DFL-Balsam Township, voted against repealing the ban, but his decision hinges on a national repository.
He, too, blames the political process for the long delay in setting up a national repository. But in the meantime, Anzelc would like the state to focus its resources on wind, solar and biomass as alternative sources of energy.
The Sierra Club agrees with Anzelc about the use of alternative and renewable fuels like wind and solar energy.
“We really think that lifting the nuclear moratorium would be a step backwards,” said Margaret Levin, state director of the Sierra Club North Star. “Minnesota is so rich in renewable resources such as wind and solar that are yet untapped – there is so much potential in clean energy.”
Beard agrees and believes in other energy sources outside of coal and nuclear, but he wants to make sure the state doesn’t set up the emerging industry for failure.
“By throwing these prohibitions on our most dependable and most affordable base-load powers, we’re putting a burden on the renewable and alternative sectors that they’re not equipped to carry,” Beard said.
“They’re not ready for prime time yet.”
A quiet giant
Though inside it produces enough power to run the city of Minneapolis, the plant – which emits nothing more than a hum and the occasional cloud of steam – doesn’t seem to cause problems for its community or to the creatures that share the grounds.
Atop the off-gas tower at the nuclear power plant in Monticello sits a peregrine falcon’s nest. After eggs hatch, employees are told to look under their cars to make sure no baby falcons are hiding underneath.
Deer can be problematic on-site, Dixon said. Fish like to swim in the warmer waters around the power plant, and bald eagles can be seen soaring over the skies.
Not only Mother Nature approves of the power plant.
So do community leaders, like Monticello School District Superintendent Jim Johnson.
Johnson lives in the neighboring town of Big Lake and had no concerns with the power plant when his young family of four decided to settle there 11 years ago.
Years later, his opinion of the power plant has only improved.
His school district has a great relationship with the power plant, and he has not heard any concerns from parents about the close proximity.
“I think we definitely see [the power plant] as an asset,” Johnson said. “The people who work there are great leaders in the community.”
Tom Crippes, refuel floor supervisor at the Monticello nuclear plant since 1989, stressed the importance of nuclear power for the future.
“With the current administration, they aren’t letting us get off first base,” Crippes said. “If we get someone in here that really understands nuclear power and understands how safe it is, we’ll get going again.”
“We’re going to have to replace those nuclear power plants even if it’s 30, or even 20 years from now,” Beard said.
In 2006, the Monticello nuclear plant was granted a 20-year extension to operate until 2030. The Prairie Island Nuclear Generating Plant’s operating license will also need to be renewed before it expires in 2013, but that doesn’t worry Pickens. He snickered at the idea of not getting the extension.
An extension on the operating license for Prairie Island will save customers $1 billion and avoid 90 million tons of carbon dioxide emissions, Pickens said.
“We might as well lift the ban now and get talking about what happens when it’s time to replace [nuclear power plants],” Beard said.
“Or, maybe if we’re lucky, a breakthrough technology will happen in the next 20 years here and we can move on to something else – that would be very cool.”