The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission was ordered Tuesday to resume processing a license application for the Yucca Mountain nuclear waste repository in Nevada, almost four years after the Obama administration stopped the project.
The District of Columbia U.S. Court of Appeals ruling was in response to petitions from Aiken County and the states of Washington and South Carolina, all claiming the commission was legally obligated to continue work on the project, even if the President objected.
“This case raises significant questions about the scope of the Executive’s authority to disregard federal statutes,” Circuit Judge Brett Kavanaugh wrote in the 29-page opinion, noting that the commission “continued to violate then law” by abandoning Yucca Mountain.
The Obama administration halted the project in 2009, later creating a “Blue Ribbon Commission” to explore alternatives for disposing of the nation’s spent nuclear fuel, defense wastes and other radioactive materials.
Tuesday’s ruling, however, said laws must be followed, regardless of political opinions.
“The underlying policy debate is not our concern,” Kavanaugh wrote. “The policy is for Congress and the President to establish as they see fit in enacting statutes, and for the President and subordinate executive agencies to implement within statutory boundaries.”
The president and federal agencies, he added, “may not ignore statutory mandates or prohibitions merely because of policy disagreement with Congress.”
The court, in granting a writ of mandamus, will compel the commission to follow the law and continue processing the U.S. Energy Department’s application for the Yucca Mountain repository.
The ruling pleased officials in South Carolina, where radioactive waste once destined for Yucca Mountain remains stored at Savannah River Site.
“This decision reaffirms a fundamental truth: the President is not above the law,” S.C. Attorney General Alan Wilson said in a statement. “His administration cannot pick and choose which laws to follow and which to ignore.“
In 2009, the Obama Administration announced plans to withdraw the 8,000 page Yucca Mountain application, and funding for the project was later discontinued.
The lawsuits were filed shortly thereafter, Wilson said.
Under the 1983 Nuclear Waste Policy Act, 65 separate utility companies signed contracts to enable a nuclear waste repository and in 2002 Yucca Mountain became the designated location.
Wilson said he hopes the project can be resurrected.
“Congress passed laws designating Yucca Mountain as America’s nuclear lock box,” he said. “The American people have paid over $31 billion (including interest) towards that project. The federal government has our money, while we still have to deal with their nuclear waste.”
Although the ruling orders work on the project to resume, it will be difficult to make progress without adequate funding at the discretion of the government, said Tom Clements, the southeastern nuclear campaign coordinator for Friends of the Earth.
“The court ruling may well not mean much,” he said, noting that there is just $11.1 million in the hands of the NRC to review the license.
“The ruling simply delays the death of the Yucca project as the court recognizes that few funds remain and that Congress may not appropriate more, so that the project will essentially end when the funds are expended,” Clements said. “Thus, Aiken County and the other petitioners can take little comfort from the ruling that the Yucca project is still alive; to the contrary the lack of funds as affirmed by the court means that the project will conclude once those funds are rapidly expended.”
In lieu of Yucca Mountain, the Obama administration’s commission has suggested “consolidated, interim storage” of nuclear waste until permanent solutions can be devised.
Savannah River Site has been discussed as venue for such a project, due to its existing nuclear infrastructure and expertise.