We often drive on a stretch of Minnesota State Route 10 that runs from Elk River to Big Lake and eventually to a point past Saint Cloud that takes about an hour to drive on a normal day, and we see trains. The railroad track runs along this route, and during the hour it takes to drive it, we never fail to see at least one train in operation. Usually there are two or three. Often, maybe every tenth time, one of the southeast bound trains is carrying coal; Dozens and dozens of cars loaded with coal come down this track from somewhere far away, because there is no coal anywhere near here.
The probability of seeing a train on this track is not bound to time of day or day of week. I’ve driven this route a couple of hundred times, at least a few times on every day of the week and at some point at all times of the day and night. I feel comfortable extending my observations of what happens in a give hour to the rest of the day, week, month, and year. I’m not sure why there would be anything other than a fairly evenly distributed schedule of trains anyway. Say they only load coal or freight or petroleum or some other product at certain times of the day. These things are being routed from and to many different locations around North America. Therefore, there can be no particular stretch of heavily used track that sees a lull or a rush hour of trains. Or, if there is such a thing happening, it is not something that I’ve observed. And I’ve been paying attention.
(As I write this from the passenger seat of our red Subaru, a train is passing just at the very beginning of this one hour stretch … hopper cars but for grain, not for coal … about 100 of them … probably empty since the pike is being pulled by only two engines.)
Now, think about that for a second. If it takes me one hour to drive this stretch of Route 10, and I see two trains go by each time, then that means that a reasonable estimate of the number of trains that run on these rails per day is about fifty. If every fifth train is coal, then that means five or so of these are coal trains each day, and they are all going to one power plant. This is one of the main power plants in the region. It looks pretty clean from the outside. You don’t see belching black smoke coming out of giant stacks. Nonetheless, all of that coal is converted into heat, ash, and CO2, which in turn is the most important greenhouse gas.
When I think about that, while diving by the coal plant and seeing a train coming down the tracks off in the distance, and notice the very large cinder mountain … the only high thing around this flat place … next to the plant, I am obviously made more viscerally aware of global warming than I otherwise might be.
There are places along this route where I can see the stacks from this coal plant. From a smaller number of places, I can see the coal plant at the same time as a small, narrow but very tall old-fashioned looking stack several miles away. This is not really a smoke stack, but rather, a different kind tower. That is the Monticello Nuclear Power Station.
Monticello is a single reactor of the same exact design as the plant at Fukushima. The Fukushima plant is famous for having three of its reactors melt down following the devastating 9.0 earthquake and ensuing tsunami.
I think its interesting that lots of people I know live within the evacuation zone of this plant, or the one other nuke plant in Minnesota, and have no idea that they do. Or, they kinda know but they don’t think about it. These plants were built a long time ago and most people don’t think about these things, so that’s understandable, but I would think that with the disaster in Fukushima there would be at least a passing interest in knowing that the nearest major power plant to your home is a Fukushima-style reactor.
One of the reasons that the Monticello Nuclear Power Plant is not on the radar of the average Minnesotan living in the vicinity is that this particular plant has a very good safety record. There was one notable incident in which quite a bit of radioactive water was dumped into the Mississippi (in the 1980s) and one or two other problems. One incident involved the death of one of the plant workers, but this was an electrocution involving the electrical generation aspect of the plant. It could have happened at any power plant. In any event, the fact that Monticello has one of the best safety records of all the nuclear power plants in the US means that it does not get on the news too often, so it stays off the radar screen.
Another reason is that Minnesotans have a different kind of radar screen than other people do, in a sense. We are more likely to wait until something goes wrong then say something under our breath about it, than to go running around screaming and yelling about the dangers of nuclear power like other people seem to do.
A couple of weeks ago, my friend and colleague Analiese Miller and I tried to get a tour of Monticello. We were told that since 9/11, tours has been canceled. I suppose I could ask again now that Osama bin Laden has been caught. And I’m not being funny when I say that. It isn’t the fact that he was caught that matters as much as what they found in his house. At least so far, we’ve heard of no evidence to attack US nuclear power plants. Instead, we’ve heard of evidence to attack US railroad tracks. And as we’re driving along Route 10, and I can see the railroad tracks just off to one side of the road with the Monticello Nuclear Power Plant tower just becoming visible as I write this, I think … maybe I shouldn’t be here, this close to the tracks!
Eventually, Ana and I will do what we originally intended regarding this plant. A tour would have been the best way to do it, and I still may actually ask again, but the tour itself is not the point. What we wanted to do is two things: 1) To compare Fukushima with Monticello. Since they are the same reactor design it would be interesting to go down the list of things that went wrong at Fukushima with a nuclear engineer from Monticello and get the local take on the story. Also, we could ask about local issues that might not be a factor in Japan. Very few tsunamis make it to Monticello, Minnesota, but there are tornadoes. And cold. And, 2) To compare Monticello Nuclear Power Plant with the nearby coal plant. As I write these words, we’re driving by the coal plant, and if I look over my left shoulder, I can see the skinny tower and squared off reactor building of the power plant. I find it interesting that the two plants are so close to each other. Is there a reason for that? How to the plants interact as members of the same power grid? Is the coal plant considered part of the backup generator system for the nuclear power plant? Does the coal plant turn up production during refueling at the nuclear plant? And so on and so forth.
I’m thinking we can meet the power plant experts at the Coffee Cup in Becker and talk. Maybe find a place along the road where we can get all three of us and the two plants in the same picture with the wide-angle. And, I didn’t ask about getting a tour of the coal plant. Maybe that’s in the cards.
Update: The NRC has just completed a report on safety at Monticello as part of a larger effort to assess safety generally at US nuclear power plants. Get your copy here. (It is a small PDF file.)