Growing up on the Prairie Island Indian Community reservation, Calais Lone Elk had a plan – a set of steps burned into his mind and logged into his school to help him find his family if there was an explosion nearby. nuclear power plant.

    See the Nuclear Generating Plant

Xcel Energy’s Prairie Island Nuclear Generating Plant can be seen from Wakonade Drive in the Prairie Island Indian Community in Welch, Minn., on Thursday.

Tom Baker for MPR News

“If you go to school and something happens here, where can you meet your parents? Where can you reunite with your family? Because you can’t come back here,” he said. “These are things that I don’t think are normal. .”

Lone Elk is now 37, and constantly reviews his escape plan for an emergency at a nearby power plant.

It is located only 700 yards away from his community of 100 houses, its power lines line the yards and main roads.

For Lone Elk and others who live on Prairie Island, concerns about the safety of the nuclear power plant are a source of low-grade daily stress. Despite official assurances, many people believe that it is not good for their health to live so close together.

“We all have a plan, whether we hear it or not. We all have an idea of ​​what we should do or what we should do. And we all know we have to get up in the air at that nuclear plant,” Lone Elk said.

But it’s also a physical reminder of the environmental injustices Indigenous people have endured for generations, said tribal council vice president Shelley Buck.

“Since this plant was created, our energy history here has been focused on the power plant and the nuclear waste stored next to us,” he said.

A man poses for a picture

Shelley Buck, vice president of the Prairie Island Indian Community in Welch, Minn., stands at a potential solar site for the community’s net-zero carbon project on June 30.

Tom Baker for MPR News

Now, the Community of Prairie Island is seeking to separate itself from a power plant it never wanted. It has developed a $46 million plan to achieve net zero carbon emissions within the next decade.

Buck says this is an ambitious step towards becoming a sovereign nation that is also energy sovereign.

“Doing a big project like net zero really helps us change that narrative to something positive that shows how energy can be used as a positive force,” he said. “By offsetting or eliminating the carbon we produce, it’s a positive for everyone.”

‘Why not grow up?’

Prairie Island members are descendants of the Mdewakanton Band of Eastern Dakota. They settled in southern Minnesota, but lost the land in 1851 in the Treaty of Traverse des Sioux.

It wasn’t until 1934 that the land on the banks of the Mississippi north of Red Wing became a federally recognized reservation.

The Prairie Island power plant was issued its first operating license in 1974, and it was renewed in 2011. At first, tribal members said the plant was described to them as a of steam power. It is one of two nuclear power plants, the second at Monticello, that Xcel says are critical to its plans to produce carbon-free electricity by 2050, and are considered safe by the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

A sign seen

A sign outside Xcel Energy’s Prairie Island Nuclear Generating Plant along Wakonade Drive provides directions for visitors to the plant, located within the Prairie Island Indian Community in Welch, Minn., seen June 30.

Tom Baker for MPR News

In the early 1990s, Xcel Energy asked the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency for a permit to store nuclear waste there — at least temporarily until a permanent repository at Yucca Mountain could be opened, a plan that has since been shelved because of local opposition.

As a child, Mikhail Childs remembers his father protesting the possibility of storing nuclear waste so close to the reservation.

“Some of the earliest memories I have are protesters standing in the street, blocking semi-trucks hauling nuclear waste,” he said. “The way [my dad] explained to me that all this land we live on is sacred … We believe that in our creation story, creation happened just a few miles down the river.”

A man stands in front of power lines

Mikhail Childs, a member of the Prairie Island Indian Community, stands on tribal land near the Prairie Island Nuclear Power Plant in southeastern Minnesota on July 20.

Catharine Richert | MPR news

But here’s the twist, and it’s an important one: For all those years of living in a nuclear power plant next door, Prairie Island wasn’t powered by the energy generated there, Buck said. The community recently started getting natural gas from Xcel.

It’s a logistical detail he says prevents the tribal community from qualifying for the Renewable Development Fund, a pot of state money that Xcel customers finance for renewable energy projects for Xcel service areas, he said.

After 2020, a legislative change allows Prairie Island to tap $46 million from the fund for the project.

While the tribe has been toying with the creation of wind power and other renewable projects in the past, a large amount of funds has created an opportunity to do more.

“Why not grow up?” said Buck.

One goal, different solutions

And by and large, Buck is referring to a plan that aims to eliminate 20 million pounds of carbon annually through a raft of renewable energy and efficiency upgrades. Treasure Island Resort and Casino on Prairie Island is the largest energy user on the reservation.

The plan includes several ways to achieve that goal, said Andrea Thompson, who was hired by the tribe as the project’s energy program manager.

“Any community that sets a net zero goal can decide the path to get there. And for many different reasons, some communities choose to buy carbon credits or find a financial way to get there. -ot to net zero while the actual carbon reduction is not necessarily occurring on the site,” said Thompson.

“Prairie Island does things differently,” he said.

A man poses for a picture

Andrea Thompson, energy program manager for the Prairie Island Indian Community’s net-zero carbon project, stands at one of the project’s potential solar sites in Welch, Minn., on June 30.

Tom Baker for MPR News

Their plan includes building a 10-to-15 acre solar array that aims to reduce carbon emissions by more than 550,000 pounds annually, phasing out natural gas in favor of geothermal energy and electrification, and developing zero- emission and energy efficiency residential upgrades.

“One of the reasons why this project is so exciting is [the tribal council] not just say, ‘Let’s go gangbusters with solar, and let’s call it a day,'” said Shoshana Pena, director of program services for NV5, a technical engineering firm for hire. to work on the project.

Unlike other municipal or tribal projects that he has seen in the industry because “They are not trying to do what meets the minimum requirements. They are looking at all these different solutions,” he said.

See Treasure Island Resort Casino

Treasure Island Resort & Casino, owned and operated by the Prairie Island Indian Community in Welch, Minn.

Tom Baker for MPR News

Net zero in some years

The project is also on a fast track, Thompson said.

“A lot of communities, when they set net zero goals, they often give themselves 10, 20, 30 years to get to net zero. And Prairie Island is under a different timeline , we’re trying to do net zero in a few years, a few years,” he said.

That ambitious timeline has been set back by supply-chain and labor issues related to COVID, Thompson said. Last year, the tribe asked the Legislature for an extension to the second phase of the project, which includes finding the right contractors to develop the plan – a phase that is expected to be completed in early 2023.

The details of the plan continue to change – for example, where the solar array will be located, and the design of the geothermal wells.

Meanwhile, tribal leaders continue to make their case for the plan to residents. In general, it was met with support from members, but some were skeptical about how it would be implemented.

That includes Selena Childs. He worries that the plan focuses too much on technologies that won’t stand the test of time. He has questions, for example, about how long the solar array will last before it needs to be replaced.

A man stands in front of power lines

Selena Childs, a member of the Prairie Island Indian Community, stands on tribal land near the Prairie Island Nuclear Power Plant in southeastern Minnesota on July 20.

Catharine Richert | MPR news

“Instead we can start building green, economically efficient homes,” Childs said. “We can build our house from local resources much more efficiently than the trailer homes we see being put up here… And yet, they want to fill our fields of solar panels.”

And, Childs pointed out, the plan doesn’t change the fact that the community is next to a nuclear power plant and the nuclear waste is stored there.

“We don’t get our power from the nuclear panel here. We get it from somewhere else,” he said.

Tribe member Nicky Buck said that might be true. But for him, it’s about reclaiming the narrative of his community and their land.

“We want to make it a more positive, strong story, that we, the people, are in control of our lives,” he said.

A man stands in front of power lines

Nicky Buck, a member of the Prairie Island Indian Community, stands on tribal land near the Prairie Island Nuclear Power Plant in southeastern Minnesota on July 20.

Catharine Richert | MPR news

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