An order by a federal appeals court to resume the licensing process for a proposed nuclear waste dump in Nevada by no means assures that the dump will open. But it at least affirms that the Obama administration and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission flouted the law in halting that process.
The appeals court ruled Tuesday that the NRC has been violating federal law by delaying a decision on the proposed dump in Nevada’s Yucca Mountain. The ruling seems likely to reopen the debate over building the national repository at that site, which is about 100 miles northwest of Las Vegas.
Yucca Mountain was designated in a Joint resolution of Congress in 2002 as the site for storing highly reactive nuclear waste from nuclear energy plants, old storage facilities for nuclear weapons and other nuclear sites around the nation. The government has spent about $15 billion to develop the storage site.
But work came to a halt after Barack Obama took office in 2009. He slashed funds for the program and appointed a commission to begin a new process of locating a storage site.
The NRC subsequently halted its review of the licensing application for the site, saying there was no money to conduct the review. But the Energy Department had filed its license application for Yucca Mountain in 2008, and the deadline for evaluating the application was 2011.
That essentially was the crux of the court’s ruling Tuesday, that the Obama administration had failed to proceed with that process as required by law and failed to meet the required deadline for reviewing the license application.
The petition seeking the court order was filed by the states of South Carolina and Washington, as well as state public utility officials. They complained that despite the delay, the federal government has continued to collect money from nuclear utilities to pay for disposal costs.
Those utilities – or more accurately, their ratepayers – have contributed an estimated $35 billion to the nuclear waste fund. But, to date, they have received no return on that investment.
Despite the success of the appeal, however, there is no guarantee that the project will go forward. For one thing, the NRC could give a thumbs down to the site in its licensing review.
In addition, Congress has allocated no money for the repository, so it essentially now is an unfunded project. With the budgetary sequester in place, finding money for the dump could be difficult.
We hope, however, that if the NRC gives its approval, Congress will find a way to fund the construction and complete the project. A national repository is sorely needed, and Yucca Mountain remains an ideal location for one. The site is in a sparsely populated area of Nevada that once was used to detonate nuclear bombs during the Cold War.
With no national repository, waste now is stored on-site at nuclear plants and other facilities nationwide. South Carolina’s decades-old waste facility in Barnwell County still stores nearly 100,000 cubic feet of low-level waste, and weapon’s grade nuclear materials are stored at the Savannah River Site near Aiken County.
While this ruling moves the debate forward only slightly, it opens the door to action by Congress to find money for the licensing review and, ultimately, the completion of the repository. The ruling was hailed by South Carolina officials, including Gov. Nikki Haley, U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham and other members of the legislative delegation, as good news for South Carolina.
In a prepared statement, the governor stated that she is “dedicated to keeping South Carolina from becoming a permanent home for this nation’s processed nuclear waste and will continue pushing for Yucca Mountain to be used for its intended purpose.”
We would echo that and join her in urging Congress to act.