WASHINGTON – To paraphrase the great Mark Twain, it appears the report about the death of the proposed Yucca Mountain nuclear-waste repository was an exaggeration.
In an unexpected move, the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals has revived, at least temporarily, the prospects of storing the nation’s spent nuclear waste at a site about 90 miles northwest of Las Vegas despite what was thought to be a successful effort by Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid, of Nevada, and President Obama to kill it.
The court ruled that the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, which oversees the handling of the toxic waste produced by nuclear power plants and smaller facilities, failed to follow the dictates of the Nuclear Waste Policy Act when it abandoned the Yucca Mountain project.
A three-judge panel held 2-1 that the NRC was “flouting the law” when it refused to conduct a licensure review on the project that has already eaten $15.4 billion and basically sat abandoned since the Obama administration cut off funds in 2010.
The court said the NRC must resume its review of the license application even though the $11 million remaining for that task is substantially less than what will be required to get the job done.
The Nuclear Waste Policy Act requires the NRC to investigate potential sites for a geologic depository to safely hold nuclear waste. Refusing to consider Yucca Mountain without substantiated reasons violates that law.
Reid, who has led the fight against the project aimed at his home state from the beginning, insisted that Congress will not appropriate more money in its behalf. He also maintained that Yucca Mountain will no longer be seriously considered despite the court ruling.
“As a result of a political compromise, we put some really bad judges on the D.C. circuit court and they produced a 2-1 decision requiring the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to license Yucca Mountain,” Reid said during an appearance before the Las Vegas Metro Chamber of Commerce. “Their opinion means nothing. Yucca Mountain is dead. It’s padlocked. There’s nothing going on there.”
But Rep. Fred Upton (R-Mich.), chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, welcomed the decision, calling it a “clear rebuke” to the NRC’s failure to proceed.
“The Obama administration rejected the law and prematurely terminated the Yucca Mountain repository program but Congress and the courts have spoken out to prevent billions of taxpayer dollars and three decades of research from being squandered,” Upton said.
The main issue now, Upton said, is determining whether Yucca Mountain is safe for repository purposes.
“Ultimately, our goal continues to be the safe permanent storage of spent nuclear fuel, giving states and communities the certainty they need,” he said.
The NRC has not announced how it intends to handle the issue.
Dealing with nuclear waste is a longstanding problem for the federal government, which is legally obligated to collect the spent material from nuclear power plants across the country. The Government Accounting Office estimates the U.S. has more than 75,000 metric tons of nuclear waste on hand contained in 80 different sites in 35 states. The office estimates that amount will more than double by 2055.