Introduction to this site: Radioactive Monticello

This project emerged from the desire to visualize the impact of potential radiation fallout from the Monticello Nuclear Generating Plant, about 40 miles from where I grew up.  The goal was to map the estimated effect of fallout on the community—the landscapes and the inhabitants (people, flora, and fauna), the short-term and the long-term, the known and the unknown.  I wanted to take all the disparate facts and findings related to nuclear energy, map the details onto regional maps of the same scale, and then layer the maps so that one could visualize the full-scale impact of fallout, from soil to sky.  I hoped also that the aggregation of all these layers might shed new light on relationships in the environment that are perhaps under-estimated or neglected.

What migration patterns could be hit by a toxic plume?  How much of the Mississippi watershed would be affected if there was nuclear contamination?  Could the accepted low levels of radioactive waste that are emitted every day be traced to [hypothetical] three-headed frogs downriver?  Since the Monticello plant is now the main transfer station for the new CapX2020 power line, how will a plant shutdown affect energy transfer to Milwaukee and Chicago? Are the existing evacuation zones appropriate? What is the visual representation of the households, schools, daycares, and businesses in the 10-mile evacuation zone that are given free Iodine pills? Are any communities neglected? What about commuters—the 40,000 people that travel past the plant on I-94 every single day?

As soon as I was knee-deep in Government documents I realized that such an all-inclusive map was not in the cards, at least for the time being.  Not only were my map-making skills not up to par (generating a Toxic Plume map is harder than you think), but the data wasn’t up to par.  Briefly: it is difficult to estimate the full impact of radiation exposure, both on humans and the environment.  There is a lot we don’t know about the long-term effects of radiation exposure (besides knowing that there will be long-term effects), and there aren’t enough people in the utility or regulatory industry talking about the things we don’t know.  It’s also difficult to distill conflicting reports and to know what data to trust when the Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s generic Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) for the site-specific environment around the Monticello plant insists most of the impact will be “SMALL”—but numerous independent agencies (including Minnesota Department of Health) point out the uselessness of such a generic and “flawed” EIS.  How can we begin to understand the impact of a Nuclear Power Plant if we can’t trust the reporting or the monitoring?

A good example of the inconsistencies, inaccuracies, and false/misleading information that one must sift though can be found in the CapX2020 proposal to expand the transmission corridor—bringing power from North Dakota’s coal, natural gas, and wind farm reserves through Minnesota, into the Monticello Nuclear Power Plant, and on to Milwaukee and Chicago.  The CapX2020 proposal comes from an alliance of three utilities collectively known as The Applicants: Northern States Power Company, Xcel Energy, and Great River Energy.  The proposed routes include a preferred route, an alternate route, and five segment alternatives along the preferred route.  Public hearings were held throughout 2010 and 2011 for public comment.

During these hearings it became clear that the proposed routes—which by law are supposed to follow existing power line or railroad corridors—were actually projected onto section lines and half-section lines, AKA political and property boundaries, farming and logging roads, not existing or appropriate corridors.  The section and half-section lines were widened by The Applicants to the width of a county road (63 ft road right away access and 93 ft road right of way access) and labeled as pre-existing corridors—thus diluting the statutes on corridors and exaggerating the route information, skirting responsibilities to the law and the community.  In this way The Applicants tried to use misleading maps to expand the list of acceptable corridors which, had they succeeded, would have resulted in an increased proliferation of corridor expansion—not to mention extensive damage to the environment and the community.

Community involvement played a pivotal role in identifying false or misleading information and providing accurate maps with new routes that would have the least amount of impact on the environment and community.  The health risks due to line lossage (stray voltage) make it so no human dwelling can exist within 150 feet of the CapX2020 power lines (150 ft. being the minimum because the line poles are 140 ft. tall and would devastate whatever was in their path if they fell). The full impact of line lossage is not known, but the result is serious enough that had one of the proposed routes been permitted to pass through the backyard of an epileptic child on a neighboring property it is thought that the stray voltage would have triggered seizures in the child.  Impact on wildlife and watershed was similarly ignored in The Applicants’ route proposal although some wetlands, flora, and fauna were identified in the Draft EIS.

No recent discussion has adequately addressed the issues that could arise from reliance on a single nuclear site not only for the production of nuclear power but also as a major transfer point.  If Monticello has a nuclear shutdown or accident how will this affect the energy transfer to Chicago?  In the 1980s the Pentagon referenced Amory Lovins’ “Brittle Power” in National Security briefings regarding the risks and increased vulnerability associated with the concentration of power sources and production, but these concerns have yet to manifest as systemic obligations.   The recent CapX2020 expansion of the transmission corridor has only increased the need for higher standards of accountability from the utility companies and their regulators.[1]

To these ends, I decided that the best “mapping” I could do would be to aggregate all the various documents and reports in one area, so that connections and comparisons could be made more easily.  In a way the Nuclear Monticello website became a map in itself, as the website is the accumulation of my efforts tracing and connecting and representing disparate information in the attempt to form a cohesive picture of the Monticello Nuclear Power Plant and nuclear power in general.

The website is designed so that by browsing the menu from left to right a visitor can gradually piece together a deepening understanding of the story behind the Monticello Power Plant.  You’re first exposed to the “Terminology” found in many of the official documents (knowledge of phrases like “groundshine” come in handy later on). The following tab, “Nuclear Monticello,” contains background information on the plant including site details and images, license renewal information, and extensive information on the most recent expansion project (CapX2020). “Radiation” gives a history of radioactivity (including discovery, testing, and fallout), provides links to health information, and maps the radon zones in the USA. The “Maps” tab collects all maps published on the site and organizes them into various corridors and purposes, including “Watershed,” “Toxic Plumes,” and “Radiation Sampling.”  The “Monitoring” tab lists the efforts by the Minnesota Department of Health (MNDH) and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) to prevent, predict, and monitor radioactive releases. “Images” aggregates all images published on the site, including aerial and interior photos as well as maps. “Risks and Known Issues” lists various criticisms of NRC reports; the inherent issues in operating a nuclear power plant, including issues with modeling and predicting fallout, evacuating, and assessing current and future damage to the region; as well as a small archive of past problems.  “Emergency Planning,” includes the instructions for plant operators in case of an emergency as well as emergency instructions for citizens from the NRC and Xcel Energy.  The bottom half of the menu serves as an index of sorts for the main resources surveyed on the site. This includes a full index of “Documents and Reports,” links to all information posted about the “NRC” and “Minnesota Department of Health,” information about other nuclear power plants in the USA, and “Supplemental Information.”

While the majority of the resources referenced were official documents and reports (such as permit applications, Environmental Impact Statements and Environmental Monitoring Reports), the website contains material in a diverse array of formats; photos, drawings, graphs, diagrams, data spreadsheets, computer-mock-ups, letters, pamphlets, manuals, newspaper and magazine articles, books, film, and a range of maps are available (including aerial flyovers, toxic plume models, fallout projections, topographic maps, and maps featuring environmental and transmission corridors). The hope is that having all these materials in the same space will make it easier to draw connections in the data, notice mistakes or issues, and regulate when regulation fails, so that we can begin to understand the full impact of nuclear fallout. When possible I’ve selected excerpts from the lengthier documents so that the mass of information is more manageable, but in order to evaluate nuclear power plants thoroughly, more high-level research, data evaluation, and mapping needs to be done.  As the recent disaster at Fukashima reminds us, any risk is a great risk and any plant can have an accident-free record until they don’t.  We need to address the severity of possible fallout before it is too late.


[1] Note: As of April 2012, none of the relocated or affected residents have received any due compensation.

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