WASHINGTON -- The Department of Energy was sued Friday by state utility regulators who challenge whether consumers should continue paying into a $30 billion government nuclear waste fund if a Yucca Mountain repository is no longer in the plans.
The National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners, or NARUC, asked judges to suspend collection of the fees until a new review of whether the money still is needed.
The petition, filed at the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, presents another challenge to the Obama administration as it seeks a new strategy for storing and disposing of thousands of tons of highly radioactive used fuel.
President Barack Obama has moved to terminate the behind-schedule Yucca Mountain storage project in Nevada, and has formed a blue ribbon panel to study alternatives and report within two years.
But with no new plan in sight, NARUC challenged the fee that collects about $750 million a year from utilities, and ultimately from ratepayers.
"We do not take this action lightly; we are hopeful that the newly appointed Blue Ribbon Commission on America's Nuclear Future will chart a workable path," said NARUC President David Coen of Vermont.
"But until that time, there is no need to assess these fees on our consumers, particularly when we have no idea what solutions the commission will suggest, and whether they will be implemented," Coen said.
DOE spokeswoman Stephanie Mueller said the blue ribbon commission has been asked to recommend how the fees should be handled.
"The fees collected from the nuclear industry are legally mandated and reviewed every year and will pay the cost of the eventual long-term disposition of the materials," Mueller said. "Secretary (Steven) Chu has appointed a Blue Ribbon Commission of respected, bipartisan experts to make recommendations on these issues."
The nuclear waste fund was established by Congress in 1982 to collect fees to build a nuclear waste repository. Utilities that draw on nuclear power pay one-tenth of a cent per kilowatt hour of electricity generated.
The Nuclear Energy Institute, the trade association and lobbying arm of the nuclear industry is expected to file a similar court action as soon as next week, according to industry sources.