Obama decision to close Yucca nuclear dump back in court

Tri-City HeraldDecember 12, 2010 

RICHLAND, Wash. — A federal appeals court has decided to move ahead with lawsuits challenging the Department of Energy's authority to scrap plans to make Yucca Mountain, Nev., a national repository for nuclear waste.

The lawsuits had been on hold while the District of Columbia Circuit Court of Appeals waited for the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to decide whether DOE had the authority to withdraw its license application for Yucca Mountain.

In June, an NRC legal panel ruled that DOE must move forward with the license, but the NRC commissioners have not issued a required decision since then.

“We’re gratified that the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals, in response to our petition, is again taking control of this case and putting it back on track,” said Rob McKenna, Washington state's attorney general, in a statement.

“This is another step forward to prevent the federal government from permanently ending the process to develop the nation’s only congressionally approved, high-level nuclear waste repository,” he said.

The state, which is among the parties that have filed a federal lawsuit, filed a petition in September asking that the court lift its stay on the case. It sent a followup letter last week reminding the court that it did not have an answer.

“While we do not wish to intrude on the court’s prerogative to carefully consider our motion, we also want to make sure that our motion has not inadvertently been overlooked,” the letter said.

In response, the court Friday not only lifted the hold on the case, but also put it back on an expedited schedule so a decision may be made quickly.

“We are looking forward to the court hearing our case and hopefully deciding Yucca Mountain should stay open,” said Gary Petersen. He and fellow Tri-City business leaders Bob Ferguson and Bill Lampson filed a lawsuit before the state became involved.

In 2002, Congress designated Yucca Mountain as the nation’s sole repository site for the deep geological disposal of high-level radioactive waste and used nuclear fuel. That includes fuel from nuclear power plants, such as the Columbia Generating Station near Richland, Wash., and high-level radioactive waste from the Hanford Site, a nuclear production facility near Hanford, Wash., that was created in 1943 as part of the original Manhattan Project that led to the atomic bomb.

The $12.3 billion Hanford vitrification plant has been designed to meet Yucca Mountain specifications for disposal of Hanford’s high-level radioactive tank waste after it is turned into a stable glass form. Hanford’s irradiated fuel that was not processed at the end of the Cold War to produce plutonium for weapons use also is supposed to go to Yucca Mountain.

The state has argued that removing Yucca Mountain as the nation’s repository would significantly set back cleanup at Hanford and put at risk the state’s environment and its people.

Business leaders in the area filed suit out of concern that high-level radioactive waste will be stranded permanently at Hanford. They’ve pointed out that $10 billion had been spent toward making Yucca Mountain a national repository before the Obama administration moved to terminate the project.

Supporters of opening Yucca Mountain, or at least of continuing the licensing review to make a decision about its suitability, argue that it is being shut down in response to campaign promises made in Nevada by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., and that DOE has not made a scientific case to support the shutdown.

The business leaders retained K&L Gates for the lawsuit in February and now are seeking donations to help defray costs.

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