Nuclear waste: Court wants new look at on-site storage

In another sign that the Yucca Mountain nuclear waste dump may breathe again, a federal appeals court late last week threw out a rule that allows nuclear power plants to store radioactive waste at reactor sites for up to 60 years after the plants shut down.

The appeals court, in a unanimous ruling Friday, said the Nuclear Regulatory Commission did not fully evaluate the risks associated with long-term storage of waste. The court said on-site storage has been “optimistically labeled” as temporary, but has stretched on for decades.

The Obama administration has cut off funding for a proposed nuclear waste dump in Nevada, but it has not identified an alternative site.

The lawsuit was filed by four Northeastern states, led by New York.

The appeals court said the NRC should complete a detailed environmental review of on-site storage or explain why one is not needed.

Friday’s development came on the heels of arguments before a three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia a month ago, on whether the Nuclear Regulatory Commission broke the law when it stopped moving forward with a licensing plan for the stillborn nuclear waste dump 90 miles northwest of Las Vegas.

According to media accounts of that earlier, May hearing, the judges appeared somewhat sympathetic to the arguments made by Yucca Mountain proponents.

That earlier case involved a lawsuit filed by states – including Washington and South Carolina – that seek to get rid of nuclear waste currently being stored at power plants within their boundaries.

At issue is whether the Obama administration overstepped its authority by canceling the Yucca Mountain Project in 2009, leading the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to abandon licensing hearings.

The states argue that Congress has never repealed the 1982 legislation that created the project – known in these parts as the Screw Nevada bill – so the process must go forward by law.

“The agency can’t ignore the law simply because it thinks it won’t get money (for the project) in the future,” argued Andy Fitz, an attorney for the state of Washington.

That contention led Judge Brett M. Kavanaugh to ask a lawyer for the NRC to explain on what grounds the agency could ignore the statute requiring action on the Yucca Mountain license application. “If it’s just, ‘We don’t like it,’ well, that’s not good enough,” the judge said.

A ruling is expected later this year.

Put these ongoing legal battles together, and they mean that while Yucca Mountain may be down for the count, the referee hasn’t reached 10 yet.

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