Two years after President Obama pulled the plug on plans for the nation's only high-level nuclear-waste dump, it's still not clear if the decision is final. On Friday, a federal-appeals court ruled 2-1 that the court may order the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) to restart efforts to license Nevada's Yucca Mountain as a nuclear-waste repository. The D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals, responding to filings by the state of Washington and others, said federal law makes clear that the NRC is obligated to continue trying to license the dump site — regardless of what the Obama administration has said. Unless Congress decides otherwise by mid-December, two of the judges indicated they would likely be willing at that time to order the NRC to restart the process.
Washington and South Carolina, as well as others representing the nuclear industry, have long counted on Yucca Mountain as the final resting place for spent nuclear fuel and millions of gallons of radioactive waste left over from Cold War bomb production. That's where the 153 million gallons of nuclear slop in leaky underground tanks at Eastern Washington's Hanford reservation were slated to go once a treatment plant turned the waste into stable glass rods. But the White House in 2010, during Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid's hard-fought election in Nevada, announced it would withdraw the license application for the unpopular project 100 miles northwest of Las Vegas.
The NRC chairman unilaterally stopped the licensing process in its tracks. That led to lawsuits from the states, an internal investigation and ultimately the chairman's resignation. But now the NRC maintains that it has too little money appropriated to reconsider Yucca Mountain — an argument the states found lacking. "The NRC didn't provide any legal argument other than saying, at this point, 'We've spent a bunch of money and we're down to about $10 million,' " said Andy Fitz, an assistant attorney general for the state of Washington. "Our position was that they had put themselves in that situation. They had decided to put money to other uses. That's not a legally valid excuse." Two of the three judges agreed, but said they would wait until Congress finishes its appropriations process later this year.
But even if Congress doesn't clarify its position on whether it wants the NRC to move forward, the judges made clear they probably would. "It is possible that Congress will ... add no clarity to the current dispute," one judge wrote, later adding, "If Congress provides no additional clarity on the matter, however, we will be compelled to act."
By Craig Welch, Court re-energizes fight for nuclear-waste repository, Seattle Times, Aug. 3, 2012