By Bill Hudson, WCCO-TV

MONTICELLO, Minn. (WCCO) — The U.S. has 103 nuclear reactors generating electricity in 31 states and Minnesota is home to three of them. Xcel Energy operates two at its Prairie Island facility and one in Monticello.

Even though Minnesota is far from the disaster unfolding at the Fukushima Dai-ichi plant in northeastern Japan, the fallout is being felt worldwide.

“We are designed for earthquakes, even though this is not an earthquake zone,” explained Terry Pickens, director of nuclear regulatory policy for Xcel Energy in Minneapolis.

Pickens is comfortable with requirements of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), which mandates strict emergency response plans for every licensed reactor.

But if disaster did strike one of Minnesota’s two nuclear plants, a ground floor room in a downtown St. Paul office tower is where the emergency response would be managed. It’s known as the Emergency Operations Center and is staffed by the state’s office of Homeland Security and Emergency Management.

Inside the room, everything from weather reports to medical status, evacuation routes and radiation monitoring are made visible on huge maps and wall-mounted television screens.

“I think we’re very well prepared in this state,” said Kris Eide, director of Homeland Security and Emergency Management in Minnesota.

Eide said the NRC requires all nuclear plants to perform every-other-year emergency preparedness drills. Because Prairie Island and Monticello are both owned by the same utility, one is being put to the test each year.

The drills give local, county, state and federal agencies a chance to test their emergency plans by holding simulated disasters to assure public safety.

“The Monticello area, the school children, actually leave their classrooms and get on buses just to make sure that the buses actually do get there and there will be enough buses for them to be able to get on to them and go to their sister schools,” said Eide.

Sheriff’s departments, local police and the Minnesota State Patrol will practice the best traffic routes for mock evacuations. First responders at local hospitals and clinics will simulate responding to mass medical emergencies.

The immediate area of concern is known as the 10-mile zone where 30,000 people live within closest proximity to the Monticello nuclear plant. A similar zone exists around Prairie Island, including Red Wing. Those areas are most at risk in the event of a radiation leak at either facility. 

But Minnesota’s emergency plan also includes management of a 50-mile “ingestion pathway zone,” where an estimated 2 million people could potentially ingest radioactive contamination from food, water and other items.

People living within that zone, including residents of Hennepin and Ramsey counties, could be evacuated, if necessary. However, concerns for residents of the ingestion zones are more about long-term exposure.

Ever since the disaster at Three Mile Island in 1979, nuclear reactors in the U.S. have been required to have greater redundancies in their designs and operations. Plants like Monticello and Prairie Island are required to have control room simulators that mimic the actual reactor controls so that plant operators can drill for a host of scenarios.

Perhaps someday, the very scenario that is now endangering residents of northeastern Japan.

“Our regulator, the NRC, will look at it and they will suggest and we will implement scenarios on our simulator and train our operators in dealing with the things that the Japanese operators have seen in their plant over there,” said Pickens.

Comments (7)
  1. RW says:

    Build these plant inland, not in earthquake country or areas subject to tsunamis.

  2. Hemant P. Joshi says:

    stupid federal government regulating the construction and safety of these plants is a waste of taxpayer money. let the free market decide how safe these plants are – it’s not the government’s job! if the plant is not safe, people can simply move away.

    right, teabaggers?

    1. Tim says:

      Dude, take a chill pill. The teabaggers as you like to refer to them are for limited government. They do not believe that nuclear facilities need no regulation. But even in a heavily regulated country like Japan obviously no one can predict earthquakes. And seriously, the current administration has added almost $5Trillion in debt in less than 3 years. And what do we have to show for that kind of spending????? It is really quite sad what they have saddled the American people with.

  3. Goob says:

    Would you trust non-union hacks to work on nuke plants when they shut down for maintenance??? Not me!!!

  4. Devoided says:

    The Monticello plant is of the same design generation of the currently failing plant in Japan…a GE Mark 1 system. WCCO do a little research on provide the is some help from NBC…

    How long before this post is deleted???

  5. Victim Du Jour says:

    Middle eastern oil is causing nuke hazards too.

    Minnesota doesn’t have earthquakes like Japan, and you don’t see local environmentalists giving up their modern amenities and living like Amish.

  6. That is an exceptionally good quality post youve posted. Thanks for that, it is just precisely what it takes.

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