Now Washington State sues over Yucca Mountain

14 April 2010

Washington State - home of the Hanford nuclear weapons development site - has filed a lawsuit against the US Department of Energy (DoE) to prevent it abandoning plans for the Yucca Mountain radioactive waste repository in Nevada.


Attorney General Rob McKenna announced that Washington has filed suit in the US Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit to prevent the DoE from "irrevocably terminating the Yucca Mountain radioactive waste repository by withdrawing 'with prejudice' its licence application for the repository."


In its lawsuit, Washington claims that the DoE's decision to "irrevocably terminate the Yucca Mountain project in favour of an unknown and yet-to-be identified alternative" violates the Nuclear Waste Policy Act, the National Environmental Policy Act and the Administrative Procedures Act.


  The $12.3 billion
  Waste Treatment Plant
  at Hanford continues
  to be designed and
  constructed to meet
  standards specific to the
  Yucca Mountain facility

Washington is requesting that the Court of Appeals issues a permanent injunction requiring DoE to continue to fulfil its obligations with respect to the Yucca Mountain project and prohibiting the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) from hearing or granting the DoE's motion to withdraw its licence application.


In February 2009, the Obama administration announced that funding for the Yucca Mountain project had been reduced to all but zero and that a new plan for the disposal of the country's used nuclear fuel and high-level waste would be developed. The project came to an official halt on 3 March 2010 when the DoE filed a motion with the NRC to withdraw the application to build and operate Yucca Mountain.


Washington's lawsuit follows its motion to intervene in the licensing proceeding before the NRC's Atomic Safety and Licensing Board (ASLB). Last week, the NRC issued an order putting the licensing proceeding on hold until three similar cases already filed in the appeals court are resolved.


In a separate motion, Washington State has also requested a preliminary injunction to prevent DoE from taking any further action to terminate or dismantle operations at Yucca Mountain until the court has an opportunity to rule on the merits of the state's lawsuit.


The Hanford site has been in use since 1943: First as part of the Manhattan Project that created the world's first nuclear weapons, then as a nine-reactor plutonium production complex throughout the Cold War period. There was also some research into peaceful uses of nuclear energy. One result of this program of work has been almost 241 million litres of liquid radioactive and chemical waste. This is stored in 177 large underground tanks, 149 of which are 42 years beyond their expected 25-year design life.


In a statement, McKenna's office said that the $12.3 billion Waste Treatment Plant at Hanford continues to be designed and constructed to meet standards specific to the Yucca Mountain facility. Design and engineering of the plant is 78% complete and construction is 48% complete, it noted.


"In a worst-case scenario, termination of the Yucca Mountain repository could result in the need to tear down and rebuild portions of the plant to implement design and engineering changes to meet another repository's waste acceptance criteria," the statement said. "This would result in significant costs and delays in Hanford's entire tank waste clean-up mission."


McKenna commented: "The people of the Tri-Cities did their part to help our country fight World War II and the Cold War - and the federal government should honour that sacrifice." He added, "The Department of Energy's move to permanently remove Yucca Mountain as a potential nuclear waste repository - with no identified alternative - significantly sets back cleanup at Hanford and puts our people and our environment at risk."

"In taking this legal action, we continue to staunchly defend the interests of Washington in retaining a potential repository for the millions of gallons of high-level radioactive waste our state currently houses," McKenna noted. "DoE simply does not have the authority to unilaterally and forever terminate the Yucca Mountain project with no alternatives and no valid reason."


Earlier this month, sixteen electricity utilities, together with US nuclear industry organisation the Nuclear Energy Institute (NEI), filed a lawsuit against the DoE seeking a suspension of payments into the country's nuclear waste fund. The suit followed a similar one filed days before by the National Association of Utility Regulators (NARUC).


Researched and written

by World Nuclear News