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Court rulings revive Yucca dump licensing proceeding, end collection of Nuclear Waste Fund fee

Will the Yucca dump zombie rise again? Nevada says NO! Political cartoon by Jim Day, Las Vegas Review Journal, 2010 (be sure to count the toes!)In 1987, it was "Screw Nevada." Now, it appears to be "screw the taxpayer," and "screw future generations."

Rulings issued by the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia have led to a partial revival of the proposed Yucca Mountain, Nevada high-level radioactive waste (HLRW) dump's licensing proceeding before the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), while ordering the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) to end Nuclear Waste Fund fee collections intended to ultimately pay for HLRW disposal.

On Nov. 18th, the five NRC Commissioners issued an order to the agency's staff to complete its Safety Evaluation Report (SER) regarding DOE's cancelled plan to bury 70,000 metric tons of irradiated nuclear fuel and HLRW less than 100 miles northwest of Las Vegas, on sacred Western Shoshone Indian Nation treaty lands. The Commission order comes in response to a 2-1 split decision at the DC Appeals Court in August. Two Republican appointees mandated NRC resume the Yucca licensing proceeding, so long as related funds remain in its coffers to do so. The dissenting Democratic appointee referred to the majority decision as the "doing of a useless act."

In fact, the Commission order admits that completing the five volume SER over the next year will likely deplete most of the $11 million in NRC's carryover funding remaining from its Nuclear Waste Fund allocations. The NRC Commissioners also requested that DOE supplement its previous Yucca Mountain Environmental Impact Statement.

Speaking of the Nuclear Waste Fund, another DC Appeals Court ruling issued on Nov. 19th appears to have ended it. The three-judge panel (comprised exclusively of Republican appointees) has ordered DOE to stop collecting Nuclear Waste Fund fees. Since the enactment of the Nuclear Waste Policy Act 30 years ago, DOE has collected one-tenth of a cent per kilowatt-hour of nuclear generated electricity. This surcharge on ratepayers consuming nuclear eletricity has never been adjusted for inflation since. It has generated some $30 billion. Some $8 billion of that was spent studying the Yucca site. But Yucca's total price tag, if constructed and operated, was estimated to have been around $100 billion, tens of billions of dollars more than the Nuclear Waste Fund fee would ever collect.

The open secret was that federal taxpayers would have been looked to, in order to make up the shortfall. That geologic disposal shortfall will now grow even bigger, now that no collection will take place to pay for the management of irradiated nuclear fuel. Hence, today's court ruling amounts to one big "screw the taxpayer" and "screw future generations." The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency was forced to admit, under court order, that HLRW will remain hazardous for a million years.

In the dwindling days of his administration -- beginning on the day Barack Obama won the presidential election, and ending two days after Obama took the oath of office -- George W. Bush's DOE very quietly signed new contracts with nuclear utilities, ultimately obligating federal taxpayers to pay for the forevermore-management of new reactor-generated HLRW. The contracts were so secretive, they were not even reported by the news media until March 2010, when Beyond Nuclear, IEER, and attorney Diane Curran publicized the news at a press conference, based on documentation obtained under FOIA. The silver lining is, though, that of the 21 new reactor HLRW management contracts hurriedly signed by DOE, only 4 of those new reactors have actually broken ground (Vogtle 3 & 4 in GA, and Summer 2 & 3 in SC). But if those 4 reactors are built and operated, taxpayers will be left holding the bag for their HLRW management costs, till the end of time (well, at least for a million years).

Of course, the only true solution to such costs and risks lasting forevermore is to not generate HLRW in the first place! But enough already existed by spring 2010 to fill the first (now cancelled) repository. This "mountain of radioactive waste" grows by 2,000 tons each year, as 100 atomic reactors are still generating irradiated nuclear fuel in the U.S. Thus, we don't need a repository -- we already need at least two!

Nevada's state and federal elected leaders have pledged vigilance against any effort to revive the Yucca dump. The Silver State never accepted the 1987 "Screw Nevada" amendments to the Nuclear Waste Policy Act, which singled out Yucca as the only proposed dumpsite in the U.S. to be further considered. U.S. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) has led that resistance for over 25 years. He has blocked any additional congressional appropriations for the Yucca Mountain Project since Fiscal Year 2011, and appears ready, willing, and able to continue protecting his constituents. President Obama backs Sen. Reid on this, having defunded the Yucca dump and moved to withdraw DOE's license application.