Asia Global - Energy Dept. Is Told to Stop Collecting Fee for Nuclear Waste Disposal


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New York Times | WASHINGTON — A federal appeals court ruled Tuesday that the Energy Department must stop collecting fees of about $750 million a year that are paid by consumers and intended to fund a program for the disposal of nuclear waste. The reason, the court said, is that there is no such program.

Congress passed a law that established the fee in the early 1980s, to be paid by customers who use electricity from reactors. But soon after President Obama took office, he made good on a campaign promise and stopped work on the disposal site selected by Congress, Yucca Mountain, about 100 miles from Las Vegas.

The fund so far has spent about $7 billion, mostly on Yucca, and has about $30 billion on hand, including interest income.

The energy secretary is supposed to set the level of the fee based on the costs of the program, and the department had argued that for the purposes of calculation, it should continue using what the cost would have been at Yucca. But the Energy Department has dismantled the office that was pursuing the Yucca project.

In a decision written by Judge Laurence H. Silberman, the court ruled that “until the department comes to some conclusion as to how nuclear wastes are to be deposited permanently, it seems quite unfair to force petitioners to pay fees for a hypothetical option.” What they have already paid might cover that cost, Judge Silberman wrote, adding, “the government apparently has no idea.”

The fee had been set at a tenth of a cent per kilowatt-hour generated by reactors, which is about 1 percent of the average retail price of electricity.

The decision increases pressure on Congress to act, but on this issue, as on others, it is deadlocked. House Republicans want Mr. Obama to follow the laws passed in the 1980s and develop Yucca. Harry Reid, the Nevada Democrat who is the Senate majority leader, has blocked funding.

There is in fact no assurance that Yucca would turn out to be suitable. The Energy Department applied to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission for a license to build and operate the repository, but then tried to withdraw the application, and the commission stopped work. This year, the appeals court ordered the commission to resume work on the license, and on Monday, the commission said it would do so until it had exhausted the money it had on hand for that purpose, about $11 million.

But $11 million is far short of what a full evaluation would require, commission officials said. Allison M. Macfarlane, the commission chairwoman, said Monday that she did not know whether the commission would ask for more money from Congress to complete the review.

Used nuclear fuel is in the meantime accumulating at reactor sites and forcing reactor operators to build steel casks to hold it. The operators all signed contracts with the Energy Department under which the department, in exchange for the fees, was supposed to start taking the fuel for disposal beginning in 1998. The department now hopes to have a repository open by 2048.
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