Double attack on US nuclear waste fees

10 March 2011

American utilities and regulators have both filed lawsuits against the Department of Energy (DoE) for continuing to charge for the halted Yucca Mountain project. 


Funding for Yucca Mountain has come from a levy of 0.1 cents per kWh of nuclear power, which currently adds up to about $770 million per year. Nuclear utilities - and therefore their customers - have now paid a total of over $31 billion into the Nuclear Waste Fund.


The government was supposed to use this money to create a permanent nuclear waste disposal site by 1998. Around $7 billion was spent and much progress made, but Yucca was cut off from funding in May 2009 by President Barack Obama and energy secretary Stephen Chu. Spending on Yucca is now set at the absolute minimum level, while the $24 billion balance of the fund remains with the US Treasury earning substantial compound interest of over $1 billion per year.


This week, the Nuclear Energy Institute (NEI) and the National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners (NARUC) acted on behalf of their respective members with a lawsuit each to end the collection of fees, at least until the DoE has an alternative plan. The NEI is the trade association for the nuclear power industry in America and joined in the lawsuit by 16 members companies, while NARUC represents the public service commission of every US state.


"It is past time for the DoE to suspend consumer payments in the Nuclear Waste Fund," said NARUC president Tony Clark. "We want to work with the DoE to find a solution to the nation's nuclear waste problem, but consumers should be given a break until such a solution is found."


An earlier lawsuit from NARUC was based on the DoE's failure to produce an annual assessment of the adequacy of waste fees for the needs of the program. This was rejected by the court after the DoE submitted a late justification for the continued collection of fees. NARUC is now challenging the veracity of that, as it was given the right to do by the court.


"The agency has supplied no proof in its adequacy assessment that charging the fee is necessary, given all the steps the government has taken to essentially cancel the Yucca Mountain project without coming up with an alternative," said NARUC.


Current, future policy unknown 


Having submitted an 8600-page application to build Yucca Mountain under President George Bush and his energy secretary Sam Bodman, the DoE under direction from Chu and Obama moved to withdraw it in May.


This, however, was rejected by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission's independent Atomic Safety and Licensing Board (ASLB). The DoE had no right to substitute its own ideas in place of those legislated by Congress, said the ASLB, and is bound by law to complete its work at Yucca Mountain unless Congress acts to supercede the previous legislation.


Nevertheless, the politically appointed NRC Commissioners that control the body have not reached a concensus on what to do. The options of turning attention back to the application or granting the withdrawal request both remain before them.


In the meantime, Obama has created a 'Blue Ribbon' commission on radioactive waste management. It is hearing evidence from a range of stakeholders on waste management methods including reprocessing, recycling and the use of burner reactors as well as the widely accepted geologic disposal method as proposed for Yucca Mountain.
Researched and written
by World Nuclear News