40,000 TONS Of Nuclear
Reactor Fuel Sitting Around
In US Alone
By Richard Carelli
AP Writer
WASHINGTON (AP) - Avoiding a decision on the nuclear industry's most perplexing problem -- how and where to store highly radioactive waste permanently and safely -- the Supreme Court on Monday let stand a ruling that sparked appeals by nuclear reactor operators and many states on one side and the federal government on the other.
More than 40,000 tons of used reactor fuel have piled up at 72 civilian nuclear power plants in 34 states, with the amount continuing to grow, until the federal Department of Energy provides a permanent burial site.
In a 1982 federal law, the Nuclear Waste Policy Act, Congress said the government would find a place to safely store all such waste by Feb. 1, 1998.
But that deadline has long past, and the Department of Energy still is studying the feasibility of building a nuclear fuel burial site at Yucca Mountain in Nevada, about 90 miles north of Las Vegas.
That evaluation is expected to be completed in 2001, government lawyers told the court. If Yucca Mountain is found suitable, presidential approval would be required before construction could start. The site would not be ready to receive any nuclear waste until 2010, the justices were told.
The government has collected about $15 billion from the nuclear industry toward building the storage facility, and continues to collect about $1 billion a year in fees.
When it became obvious that the 1998 deadline would not be met, Department of Energy officials interpreted the 1982 law to mean that no government collection of nuclear waste need begin until a storage facility is completed.
That 1993 interpretation was challenged in a federal appeals court by states, state utility commissions and reactor operators. The petitions asked the appeals court to order the government to start collecting nuclear waste and to escrow all fee payments due after the 1998 deadline.
After several rounds of litigation, the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia ruled last year ruled that the government need not begin collecting nuclear waste until it comes up with somewhere to put it. But the appeals court said the Department of Energy can be sued for monetary damages by those entities who had relied on the 1998 deadline.
By early this autumn, 11 utility companies had filed lawsuits in in the Court of Federal Claims seeking damages ranging from $70 million to $1.5 billion.
In the Supreme Court appeal filed in behalf of the states, state agencies and nuclear plant operators, lawyers in the Michigan attorney general's office argued that the Department of Energy's "continued failure" to live up to the 1982 law and related contract has resulted in a dangerous situation.
The result is "nuclear waste sites at 72 different locations throughout the nation next to lakes, rivers and streams, which were never chosen, evaluated or qualified for long-term storage, or permanent disposal," the appeal said.
But the Department of Energy's appeal to the nation's highest court argued that the appeals court wrongly rejected an "unavoidable delays" argument and never should have authorized the possibility of monetary awards.
The cases are Michigan vs. Department of Energy, 98-225, and U.S. vs. Northern States Power Co., 98-384.