Court refuses Yucca Mountain case

NRC must rule first in case

WASHINGTON --- The Obama administration won a legal battle Friday in the long-standing fight over where to bury the nation's nuclear waste, including material stored at Savannah River Site.

The federal appeals court in Washington ruled against Aiken County, South Carolina, Washington state and others that want to ship radioactive spent nuclear fuel they are temporarily storing to a repository 90 miles from Las Vegas at Yucca Mountain.

Congress chose Yucca Mountain in 1987 as the leading candidate for waste disposal and more than $12 billion has been spent on its development. Opponents are concerned about contamination, and the Obama administration said it would not consider the site and appointed a Blue Ribbon Commission to look for alternatives.

The appeals court ruled it's not an appropriate time for it to intervene because the Nuclear Regulatory Commission hasn't made a final decision on the status of Yucca Mountain. The court threw out the case for "lack of jurisdiction," according to the ruling, filed Friday in response to a petition initially filed in Aiken County.

Observers say Friday's ruling won't end the debate but could affect proposed future research and development projects at SRS related to nuclear waste reprocessing.

"This is a blow to reprocessing advocates who will not be able to claim a 'way out' if spent fuel was brought to SRS for 'consolidated interim storage,' " said Tom Clements, the Southeastern nuclear campaign director for Friends of the Earth. "A geologic repository or some out-of-state storage site will be necessary for them to make the case for reprocessing."

Debate over how to dispose of 82,000 tons of spent nuclear fuel from the nation's 104 commercial power reactors has become more intense in the months since the Japan disaster and placed more scrutiny on nuclear programs that continue to create an additional 2,000 tons of spent fuel each year. Adding to those numbers are vast quantities of defense waste from nuclear weapons sites, including SRS.

In its ruling, the court pointed out that the commission is required under the law to issue a final decision within four years of an application, which will come in 2012 for the Bush administration's original application for construction at Yucca Mountain.

The court noted the commission's decision can be reviewed by the court and that it can also be sued for not acting by the deadline.

Other than Yucca Mountain, the U.S. has no long-term plan for disposing of its nuclear waste, and the current amount is expected to double by 2055, the Government Accountability Office said.

Staff Writer Rob Pavey contributed to this article.

Read court's opinion