The U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia made the right decision Aug. 13, siding with Washington state and seven other petitioners to compel the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to restart license proceedings for a permanent nuclear waste repository at Nevada’s Yucca Mountain.
A stinging rebuke of the feds, however, doesn’t translate into a remedy for storing high-level nuclear waste.
The NRC’s deliberate heel dragging violated the separation of powers. “The Commission has not acted, and Congress has not altered the legal landscape. As things stand, therefore, the Commission is simply flouting the law,” Chief Judge Kavanaugh writes. “In light of the constitutional respect owed to Congress, and having fully exhausted the alternatives available to us,” the petition got the nod.
In 2010, President Barack Obama and the Department of Energy brushed off Congress and arbitrarily yanked the Yucca application. Back in 2002, Congress picked Yucca Mountain as the sole repository for spent nuclear fuel and high-level radioactive waste.
The executive branch aligned with Obama’s Blue Ribbon Commission on America’s Nuclear Future, which soft-pedals Yucca and calls for a “consent-based” approach to siting waste facilities. One of the commission members is current Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz.
The Nuclear Waste Policy Act of 1982, the grand-vision panacea for radioactive waste, doesn’t provide the NRC power to OK the Department of Energy’s request to nix the Yucca license application. The ‘82 law also curtails DOE’s authority to jettison the Nevada site. That was the ruling of the NRC hearing board. The jolt from the board in 2010 spurred a reverse-logic outcome, as the NRC simultaneously pulled the plug on its Yucca Mountain review program. Last week, the court cut through the static.
“We expect a fair and objective processing of the Yucca Mountain licensing application and look forward to a decision on the merits of the application,” Washington Attorney Bob Ferguson said in a statement. “This is what Congress intended and affords the best opportunity for a permanent disposal facility for the nation’s high-level radioactive waste.” A hat tip to Ferguson, Senior Counsel Andy Fitz and former Attorney General Rob McKenna.
Time, however, to acknowledge that legislative politics, not the best available science, defines storage decision-making. Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nevada, wasn’t majority leader in 2002. Nevada, with 85 percent of its landmass within the federal domain, hadn’t displayed political muscle since the days of Republican Sen. Paul Laxalt and Democratic Sen. Howard Cannon. The conventional wisdom: Better Nevada than candidate sites at Hanford and Deaf Smith County, Texas.
Yucca brings into focus the nightmare of transporting high-level waste, the liability of a single, permanent site. As John D’Agata writes in “About a Mountain,” “They’ll arrive in Las Vegas in 3,000 yearly truckloads. Two hundred fifty monthly ones, fifty-five weekly ones, eight or nine daily ones.” The plan is to haul Hanford waste to Yucca after it has been transformed into “glass logs” in a vitrification plant, already years behind schedule.
A senior official in the attorney general’s office acknowledged that Tuesday’s court victory notwithstanding, priority one is “to get the waste out of those tanks.” That means pumping the failed AY-102 tank now to prevent groundwater contamination. And with at least six 1940s-era tanks leaking radioactive gunk, the Department of Energy must take emergency action to begin building new tanks this fall.
Washington just won a major court ruling in Washington, D.C. Three thousand miles west, the Hanford Nuclear Reservation grows more dangerous by the day.