Officials weigh in on court’s Yucca Mountain decision

The National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners (NARUC) has praised a long-awaited federal court decision that effectively forces the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) to resume its license review for the proposed domestic spent fuel repository at Nevada’s Yucca Mountain.

As for NRC, it said Aug. 13 that it is reviewing the decision.

“The NRC’s Office of General Counsel is reviewing today’s ruling by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit in the Yucca Mountain proceeding,” said NRC General Counsel Margaret Doane. “We will have no further statement at this time, but will be advising the Commission on its options for a path forward,” Doane said.

The D.C. Circuit ruled that NRC lacked the discretion to abort its license review merely because it lacked funding to finish the job. The Obama administration decided early in its tenure that it would drop Department of Energy (DOE) plans to develop the Yucca Mountain waste site.

The license application had already been filed, however, and the court said NRC was wrong to simply stop reviewing the application, the court held.

“At long last, this court decision will direct the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to comply with the law and continue its legally obligated review of the license for the proposed nuclear-waste repository in Yucca Mountain, Nev.,” said NARUC President Philip Jones.

NARUC has been active in the Yucca Mountain litigation. “It is unfortunate it took litigation and this decision to require the NRC to comply with its responsibilities under the Nuclear Waste Policy Act, but this decision sends a message that federal agencies cannot ignore laws they do not like,” said Jones of NARUC.

“This case is not so much about Yucca Mountain as it is about due process,” Jones said.

“Existing law requires the NRC to determine whether the facility and location is safe for storing spent-nuclear fuel,” Jones said. “Even if it does, the fate of Yucca Mountain remains uncertain. But the NRC is the only agency with the authority and expertise to make the judgment that the facility will meet safety and other regulatory requirements. No matter what the eventual outcome will be, we can learn a great deal from their review, because geologic storage of nuclear-waste remains the most viable option going forward.”

Sen. David Vitter, R-La., top Republican on the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, welcomed the ruling.

“Even after years of dragging their feet in a pathetic attempt to kill the Yucca Mountain project, former NRC leadership and the Administration are forced to follow the correct licensing process,” said Vitter. “The American people are getting tired of this Administration overstepping their authority to benefit their far-left environmentalist agenda, and I commend the D.C. Circuit for their ruling and not succumbing to political leanings,” he added.

Earlier this year during NRC Chairman Allison MacFarlane’s re-nomination hearing before the EPW Committee, Vitter asked if the NRC would honor the court decision when the Yucca Mountain case is concluded. Chairman Macfarlane promised, “We will follow the law.”

DOE submitted the license application in 2008. In 2010, under then-NRC Chairman Gregory Jaczko’s leadership, the licensing process was illegally halted, missing numerous statutory deadlines, Vitter said.

In South Carolina, which was one of the parties to the litigation, a spokesperson for Gov. Nikki Haley praised the decision.

“From day one, Gov. Haley has been crystal clear on this issue – Yucca has been bought and paid for with South Carolina dollars and it’s time to start using it to store nuclear waste. Only in Washington is it legal to make people pay something for nothing and that is exactly what is happening here,” the Haley representative said.

“The governor 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,” the Haley spokesperson added.

But Nevada Gov. Brian Sandoval saw things differently. “I am very disappointed that court saw fit to order the NRC to resume the Yucca Mountain licensing proceeding. Forcing the NRC to revive the effort is an exercise in futility, a waste of money, and an unproductive distraction from promising new efforts to find real, workable solutions,” Sandoval said. “I remain opposed to the Yucca Mountain project and will aggressively pursue actions to prevent its construction,” he added.

Yucca Mountain has long and controversial history

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., has been a long-time foe of locating a national nuclear waste storage facility at the site 90 miles northwest of Las Vegas. Reid was in Las Vegas on Aug. 13, the day the court decision was issued, hosting a Clean Energy Summit.

The site “is simply not a safe or secure site to store nuclear waste for any period of time,” Reid has said.

“In 1984, the DOE chose ten sites to study as potential locations, but after only three years, the DOE was instructed to only study Yucca Mountain,” according to Reid’s website. “In 2002, President Bush’s decision that Yucca Mountain was suitable for nuclear waste was recklessly approved,” Reid has said.

In 2008, the DOE announced that it was raising Yucca Mountain’s estimated price tag from $57.5bn to over $96bn, according to the Reid website.

In early 2009, then Energy Secretary Steven Chu announced that Yucca Mountain was no longer considered a viable option for storage of spent fuel from the nation’s power reactors.

Chu subsequently appointed the Blue Ribbon Commission on America’s Nuclear Future. The bipartisan panel would release its final report in January 2012. The report endorsed the idea of underground geologic storage and suggested that a willing host community should be picked. The panel also called for moving the nuclear waste issue out of DOE.

Legislation has been proposed in Congress to enact some of the panel’s recommendations. One of the commission members was then-MIT professor and current Energy Secretary Ernie Moniz.

About Wayne Barber 4201 Articles
Wayne Barber, Chief Analyst for the GenerationHub, has been covering power generation, energy and natural resources issues at national publications for more than 20 years. Prior to joining PennWell he was editor of Generation Markets Week at SNL Financial for nine years. He has also worked as a business journalist at both McGraw-Hill and Financial Times Energy. Wayne also worked as a newspaper reporter for several years. During his career has visited nuclear reactors and coal mines as well as coal and natural gas power plants. Wayne can be reached at wayneb@pennwell.com.