Business Forum: Nuclear power is not 'clean energy'

  • Article by: JOHNNY JOHNSON
  • Updated: November 17, 2013 - 1:50 PM

Before taking expansion of nuclear power seriously, the country needs to deal with the unresolved issue of radioactive waste storage.

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Spent nuclear fuel rods are stored in these casks behind a double chain-link fence at Xcel Energy’s Prairie Island nuclear plant in Red Wing. The radioactive waste site is 600 yards from the homes of the Prairie Island Indian Community.

Photo: Glen Stubbe, Star Tribune

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When he announced his climate action plan this summer, President Obama said we have “a moral obligation to leave our children a planet that’s not polluted or damaged” and that by taking “responsible steps to cut carbon pollution,” we can “leave a cleaner, more stable environment for future generations.”

To anyone concerned about our energy policy and our planet, the president’s plan could be a promising sign. But for the Prairie Island Indian Community, we found his words advocating an “all-of-the-above approach to develop homegrown energy” disconcerting. And this month’s announcement of a new presidential adviser to implement the climate action plan did little to assuage our fears.

Let me tell you why. As ­Mdewakanton Dakota, we use the term “seven generations” to refer to a length of time — and the successive generations of our people who can be affected by our actions today. So while we applaud and support the goal to leave our future generations a cleaner, more stable environment, we disagree with the president and the growing chorus from the pro-nuclear lobby who say that increased nuclear power is the pathway to cleaner energy security.

To be clear, the Prairie Island Indian Community is not opposed to nuclear power as an energy source. We are, however, deeply troubled by any implication that it represents clean energy. Indeed, the nuclear industry has generated a reported 67,500 metric tons of highly radioactive waste, against which the earth and its inhabitants must be shielded for hundreds of thousands of years.

The terrifying reality is that while we set our gaze on increased nuclear energy, we are no closer to solving the dilemma of what to do with that waste.

The federal government’s historic inability and outright refusal to deal with the matter of what to do with radioactive waste should be a grave concern for everyone living on the planet.

Promises made, and ignored

Here in Minnesota, we were told two decades ago that any local storage of the waste would be temporary because the federal government was legally required to develop a national repository by 1998. We were also promised that only 17 dry-cask containers would be needed to store nuclear waste on Prairie Island.

Today, 35 casks are filled and 98 casks will be required to store the waste generated through 2034, the end of the Prairie Island Nuclear Generating Plant’s current operating license.

After missing the federally mandated deadline for developing a national waste repository, Congress later designated Yucca Mountain in Nevada as the eventual storage site. But after nearly a decade of political dithering and $15 billion in investments by the American people, those efforts were suspended in 2010.

A blue ribbon commission was then established to find a solution, but Congress has taken no action to implement its recommendations. To date, no replacement facility has been identified and all progress made toward developing the Yucca Mountain site has been halted, even though it’s still the law of the land.

While our tribe faces unique threats given our proximity to the nuclear storage site (which sits on our ancestral homeland just 600 yards from our homes) the truth is that millions of Americans in 33 states now live in relatively close proximity to one of 63 licensed storage facilities.

Any suggestion that more nuclear power is the solution when there seems to be no political will to get a geologic repository like Yucca Mountain back on track simply sanctions more broken promises. Continued forced on-site storage is putting communities like the Prairie Island Indian Community — and major metropolitan areas around the country — at considerable risk, exposing all of us to the vulnerabilities of aging facilities, human error, natural disasters and even acts of terrorism for generations to come.

There is a famous Dakota proverb that says we will be known forever by the tracks we leave. We urge the president, the administration and all members of Congress to consider the implications of pushing for more nuclear energy before first identifying a long-term solution for storage of spent nuclear fuel.

About the author: Johnny Johnson is tribal council president of the Prairie Island Indian Community. He can be reached at the tribe’s e-mail address: comments@piic.org.

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