THE Obama administration’s cynically political effort to kill the Yucca Mountain nuclear repository has been slapped down by a federal appeals court, a major victory for Washington state, which led the lawsuit.
The Washington, D.C., Circuit Court of Appeals decision revives hope that Washington’s Hanford nuclear reservation won’t continue to be a long-term dump for Cold War-era defense waste by default.
The court ruled 2-1 that the administration’s Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) broke the law when it unilaterally shut down work at the Nevada site — and ordered the work resumed. At issue is the administration decision’s conflict with federal law.
With a 1987 law, Congress designated Yucca Mountain as the nation’s long-term depository for the nation’s commercial nuclear waste now stored at plants around the country. Radioactive waste from more than 50 years of nuclear defense production at the Hanford nuclear reservation, some in leaking tanks, is also intended for Yucca Mountain.
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Though new appropriations for Yucca Mountain are high-centered in a Congress that is in disagreement on almost any federal funding, there remains about $11 million previously appropriated to the project. At the very least, the NRC should do everything it can to complete a nearly finished technical report assessing Yucca Mountain’s viability.
Disappointingly, this case has been mired in brazen political maneuverings. Candidate Barack Obama campaigned for Nevada votes in 2008, promising to stop Yucca Mountain. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, a Democrat, has opposed the repository site in his home state and brokered a deal to get his former aide appointed NRC chairman, who shut the project down.
Despite decades of work and about $10 billion in federal money, the 2010 decision came just as a critical phase of the work was being completed. The latest Yucca Mountain Safety Evaluation Report was to provide a comprehensive technological assessment of whether Yucca was a viable repository, but the near-finished work, oddly, was halted.
The Obama administration then announced a new “blue-ribbon” commission to study what to do with the nation’s nuclear waste with, again oddly, specific direction not to consider Yucca Mountain.
If the report concludes Yucca would work, that should give weight to funding the whole project or, at the very least, putting the site back into the mix of possibilities for what to do about nuclear waste.
It could also mean the solution might be only 15 years off, instead of 50. That would be good for Hanford, its surrounding communities and commercial nuclear plants around the country.