RED WING, Minn. - Federal lawmakers voiced optimism Thursday, Aug. 23, about progress toward relocating the country's radioactive waste to a permanent repository, though the community living closest to spent nuclear fuel in Minnesota has its doubts.

"Until we actually see it start moving, we won't be 100 percent optimistic," Prairie Island Tribal Council President Shelley Buck said about the more than two dozen dry storage casks holding spent nuclear fuel at Xcel Energy's Prairie Island nuclear plant. The waste has been building up for years a few hundred yards away from the Prairie Island Indian Community.

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The proximity of the storage casks, combined with the potential for flooding on the Mississippi River and derailment of an oil train that could block the only evacuation route off the island, puts the existence of the tribal community at risk, Buck said.

She made the comments during a roundtable discussion at the nuclear plant attended by U.S. Reps. Jason Lewis, R-Minnesota, and John Shimkus, R-Illinois, as well as representatives from the city of Red Wing, Prairie Island Indian Community and Xcel Energy.

Shimkus, who sits on the House Energy and Commerce Committee, sponsored a bill directing the Department of Energy to begin a program to consolidate and temporarily store the country's spent nuclear fuel while a permanent storage facility is developed at Yucca Mountain, about 90 miles northwest of Las Vegas in the Nevada desert.

The bill, H.R. 3053, passed in the House by a vote of 340-72 in May. It has been referred to the U.S. Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works.

Shimkus said he believes the bill would pass by the same ratio or better as it did in the House if it goes before the Senate for a vote.

Another hurdle is budget appropriations to fund Yucca Mountain licensing work.

Local storage, national issue

The safety of temporary dry cask storage is not in question, Shimkus said. The issue of a permanent repository is about the federal government's failed commitment to dispose spent nuclear fuel and nuclear waste from defense-related activities, as spelled out in the Nuclear Waste Policy Act passed by Congress in 1982.

"It's the right thing to do," Shimkus said of a federal nuclear waste repository, "and we've allowed the federal government to thwart the law."

The licensing process for Yucca Mountain was suspended under the President Barack Obama administration, but the project has received renewed interest by President Donald Trump.

Nevada lawmakers and residents have long opposed the Yucca Mountain plan, along with conservation groups, groups opposed to nuclear energy and those concerned about the safety of transporting nuclear waste across the country.

Lewis, who represents Minnesota's 2nd Congressional District which is home to Prairie Island nuclear plant, said the issue extends beyond his constituents.

"This is a national issue," Lewis said, noting nuclear waste is being stored at 121 locations across 39 states.

Xcel Energy also owns a nuclear plant in Monticello.

Ratepayers who benefited from nuclear energy had been paying into a government fund to finance the repository project to the tune of about $40 billion over 35 years, according to a House Energy and Commerce Committee report. Legal proceedings have since ceased the collection of funds. The federal government also is on the hook for lawsuits over the failure to dispose of nuclear waste.

"We don't have a choice but to get something done," Lewis said. "And we are as close as we have ever been."