Court to NRC: Make decision on nuclear waste storage at Yucca Mountain

A two-hour drive from Las Vegas, Yucca Mountain was the proposed site of the nation's nuclear waste repository.

Story highlights

  • In a 2-1 decision, judges order NRC to approve or reject the permit for the storage project
  • There's opposition to putting a long-term nuclear storage facility at Yucca Mountain
  • In 2009, the Energy Department announced plans to terminate the project
  • The court says the NRC is defying the law by not making a decision
A federal appeals court ruled Tuesday that the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission must make a decision on whether to issue a permit for the long-term nuclear waste storage project at Nevada's Yucca Mountain, throwing into question plans to shutter the facility.
The U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia, in a 2-1 decision, ordered the commission to decide whether to approve or reject the application for the storage project.
"At this point, the Commission is simply defying a law enacted by Congress, and the Commission is doing so without any legal basis," the order read.
Yucca Mountain -- 100 miles northwest of Las Vegas -- was to be the solution to the U.S. nuclear waste problem: a final destination for the tons of hazardous nuclear waste accumulating at commercial reactors in 33 states. In 1987, Congress directed the Department of Energy to dispose of waste in the mountain beginning in 1998.
But political opposition to the plan has been relentless, and the Energy Department was unable to meet the deadline. In 2008, the Energy Department submitted a license application to the NRC seeking to construct a nuclear waste repository at Yucca Mountain, with a goal of opening it in 2017, a date later delayed until 2020.
In March of 2009, following the election of President Barack Obama, the secretary of energy announced plans to terminate the Yucca Mountain project.
The NRC has argued that the $11 million Congress appropriated for the permit application is insufficient and that Congress will not provide the additional funds necessary to complete the application.
The NRC's Atomic Safety and Licensing Board suspended the application until there was enough money to make progress.
But in the court's view, the appropriation bill is a mandate by Congress to proceed with the licensing process, regardless of the approval of additional funds that may be needed.
"We would certainly hope that Congress would step in before the current $11.1 million is expended, so as to avoid wasting that taxpayer money. And Congress, of course, is under no obligation to appropriate additional money for the Yucca Mountain project," the court order read.