Nuclear Power: Court orders NRC to resume Yucca Mountain review

The D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals has ordered the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) to resume the licensing process for the proposed Yucca Mountain nuclear waste depository project in Nevada.

In a 2-1 decision the federal appeals court ordered the NRC Tuesday to complete the review process on the project or issue an official rejection of the Department of Energy’s (DOE) application.

“Unless and until Congress authoritatively says otherwise or there are no appropriated funds remaining, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission must promptly continue with the legally mandated licensing process,” wrote Circuit Judge Brett Kavanaugh in the majority opinion issued with the ruling. “The president may not decline to follow a statutory mandate or prohibition simply because of policy objections.”

Yucca Mountain has been at the center of a long-term nuclear waste storage dispute, with the U.S. government having already invested several billions in the project as its future remains in limbo.

The DOE originally filed a license application to use the Nevada location as a possible repository in 2008. Yet, in 2010 the DOE sought to withdraw that application, with then Energy Secretary Steven Chu saying that the proposed geologic repository at Yucca Mountain was not seen as a "workable option" for long-term storage.

In 2011, the House Committee on Energy and Commerce launched an investigation into the government’s plans to abandon Yucca Mountain, saying the decision lacked any scientific or technical basis for the withdrawal. Since then several states have taken action against the NRC, filing suit over delays and targeting regulations such as the Temporary Storage Rule adopted in 2010, which doubles the amount of time spent nuclear fuel rods can be stored at a decommissioned nuclear power site from 30 to 60 years.

Meanwhile, The Blue Ribbon Commission on America’s Nuclear Future formed under the direction of President Obama, has since released its final report to the DOE outlining a new strategy for managing and disposing of the nation’s spent nuclear fuel and high‐level radioactive waste. The 2012 report focused on three primary points of action – a consent‐based approach to siting future storage and disposal facilities, the creation of a new nuclear waste organization independent of the DOE, and adjustments to ensure fees being paid into the Nuclear Waste Fund are properly set aside and available for use as Congress initially intended.

However, until Tuesday’s ruling there has been little government action on the issue of Yucca Mountain and no tangible initiatives set in motion in response to the Blue Ribbon report to the DOE. Instead, the nuclear industry has faced new obstacles in a decision from the NRC to suspend issuance of new operation, construction, and renewal licenses until the agency has solidified a plan for dealing with the nation’s growing spent nuclear fuel stockpile.

Access the court’s decision here: Yucca Mountain - D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals

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