Illinois utility customers have paid the U.S. government $1.9 billion to store spent nuclear fuel and the state is still sitting on the nation’s biggest pile of atomic waste. Now a court wants the Obama administration to justify collecting more money for storage that doesn’t exist.
The BGOV Barometer shows the location of 69,644 tons of radioactive nuclear waste accumulating at power plants, with more than a tenth of it in Illinois. Duke Energy Corp. (DUK:US)’s Oconee plant west of Greenville, South Carolina, has the most spent fuel, according to Bloomberg calculations based on data from the Union of Concerned Scientists and the Nuclear Energy Institute.
The U.S. Department of Energy is approaching a Jan. 18 deadline a U.S. Court of Appeals set for it to justify continuing to collect $750 million a year towards a permanent depository when none is being developed. In 30 years, the government has collected more than $30 billion in payments and interest for a waste storage facility, according to the National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners.
“We’re paying for something and there is no plan,” Rob Thormeyer, a spokesman for Washington-based NARUC, said in an interview.
President Barack Obama in February 2009 withdrew support for a nuclear waste facility at Nevada’s Yucca Mountain, about 100 miles (161 kilometers) northwest of Las Vegas, leaving the U.S. without a plan for a permanent repository. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit ruled on June 8 that the NRC’s rules on permanent storage of nuclear waste failed to fully evaluate risks and new standards must be drafted.
The Energy Department is “conducting an evaluation of the adequacy of the Nuclear Waste Fund fee that complies with the D.C. Circuit’s decision and with the Nuclear Waste Policy Act,” Jen Stutsman, spokeswoman for the department, said in an e-mail.
The court case is part of a battle environmentalists, the nuclear power industry and state regulators are fighting to force the federal government to select a dump site.
“The federal government, whether it’s administration or Congress by itself, or they’re working together, should end the status quo,” David Lochbaum, director of the Nuclear Safety Project for the Cambridge, Massachusetts-based Union of Concerned Scientists, said in a phone interview.
With no permanent storage site, enough spent fuel to cover a football field about 17 meters deep remains in storage at U.S. power plants, the U.S. Government Accountability Office estimates. Illinois, the state with the most waste, has six of the nation’s 65 operating nuclear power plants and gets 48 percent of its electricity from nuclear sources, compared with a national average of 20 percent, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.
The appeals court, deciding a lawsuit brought by New York state, said NRC’s argument that permanent storage will be available in the future when it’s needed didn’t account for how a lack of storage would affect the environment now. NRC also failed to fully assess the dangers of storing spent fuel onsite for 60 years after a nuclear plant’s license expires, the court said.
Obama in May nominated Allison Macfarlane, a geologist who wrote a book about Yucca Mountain and high-level nuclear waste, to head the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.
Under her leadership, the agency suspended final decisions on licenses for new power plants, until it completes a reassessment of risks related to storing spent atomic fuel.
Macfarlane “can’t control the money,” Lochbaum said. “So somebody else will have to set the policy and provide the funding, and that’s the administration and/or Congress.”
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