Policy: Environment & Energy

Court orders Energy Department to stop collecting nuclear waste fees

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PennAve,Energy and Environment,Zack Colman,Law,Nuclear Waste

A federal appeals court on Tuesday told the Energy Department to stop collecting nuclear waste storage fees from electric utilities that run nuclear reactors.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia said the $750 million in fees the DOE collects from utilities each year is unjustified because the federal government has not approved a permanent nuclear waste storage site, the construction of which the fees are supposed to finance.

Writing for the court, Judge Laurence Silberman said collection of the fees was not "legally adequate," largely because of the stalemate over the proposed Yucca Mountain nuclear waste repository in Nevada.

The fees, a one-tenth of 1 cent per kilowatt-hour surcharge paid by utilities that operate the nation's 100 commercial reactors, go toward a Nuclear Waste Fund to build a permanent waste site. It currently has about $28 billion that cannot be touched because there is no long-term storage location.

That's partly because the federal government has yet to rule on whether Yucca can safely store waste in the long term. A 1982 federal law says the government must evaluate whether Yucca can perform that function.

Silberman said that the fees would remain suspended until the federal government complies with that law or passes a new nuclear waste law that goes around Yucca.

The National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners, which filed the lawsuit against DOE, applauded the court ruling, saying it made little sense to pay into the fund while the stalemate over Yucca persists.

"Putting aside the political dispute about the proposed Yucca Mountain facility, nuclear power ratepayers should not be charged for a program the federal government has closed down. Thankfully, because of today’s actions, nuclear power consumers will no longer have to pay for the government’s mishandling of this program," said Charles Gray, the group's executive director.

The ruling comes after the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, which oversees licensing of commercial reactors, announced Monday that it would restart its review of the controversial Yucca site in response to an order from the same appeals court.

The NRC, with the support of President Obama, had suspended reviews of Yucca in 2009, saying it didn't have enough money to finish the review. The federal appeals court in August said that didn't matter, as the commission's failure to complete the assessment violated federal law.

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