The federal government lost two lawsuits in August that illustrate the nation’s struggle between needing nuclear energy but not really wanting it.
A federal appeals court in Washington ordered the Energy Department to pay two nuclear power plant operators damages that could run close to $200 million.
The Energy Department was required by contract with the plant operators to remove their nuclear waste for permanent storage or reprocessing, beginning Jan. 31, 1998.
The federal agency’s failure to remove the wastes created huge bills for the plant operators, who were forced to maintain temporary storage facilities.
For more than a decade, the Energy Department has planned to store the wastes in a repository under Yucca Mountain in the Nevada desert.
Stiff opposition from Nevada residents has delayed the project in a tangle of legal and political maneuvers.
Other opposition has come from residents along the proposed rail and truck routes to Yucca Mountain. One well-placed terrorist bomb or missile could puncture the transport casks, turning the trains or trucks into ready-made dirty bombs and spreading radioactive contamination over populated areas for years, they say.
Both leading presidential candidates, John McCain and Barack Obama, support wider use of nuclear reactors, which could break the deadlock in favor of disposal under Yucca Mountain.
Mr. McCain proposes building 45 new nuclear power plants in the next 22 years to add to the 104 currently operating. Nuclear energy produces about 19 percent of the nation’s electrical energy, compared with about half from greenhouse-gas-emitting coal-fired generators.
The last nuclear power plant started operating in May 1996.
Mr. Obama has said he is open to the idea of more nuclear power plants, but prefers to rely more on wind generators and improvements to electric cars.
First, they must overcome the same kinds of opponents who contributed to the court judgments last month in Yankee Atomic Electric Co. v. United States and Pacific Gas and Electric Co. v. United States.
Sen. Harry Reid, Nevada Democrat, has said in congressional testimony that residents of his state would lie down on railroad tracks to block trains carrying nuclear wastes.
“I will never allow the proposed Yucca Mountain nuclear waste dump to happen,” Mr. Reid told The Washington Times. “Nevada is not a dumping ground and we will not become the nation’s home for dangerous radioactive waste.”
The Energy Department submitted an application to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission June 3 for a license to build the Yucca Mountain repository. The review and approval process for the application is likely to take three years.
“Submittal of the Yucca Mountain license application will further encourage the expansion of nuclear power in the United States, which is absolutely critical to our energy security, environmental goals and national security,” said U.S. Energy Secretary Samuel W. Bodman.
Energy Department officials say the exorbitant costs from delay mentioned in the rulings last month by the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit show the need for the repository.
In Pacific Gas and Electric’s case, the appeals court agreed with a lower court decision that gave the utility $42.76 million in damages.
The Energy Department “did not begin accepting fuel from PG&E, or from any other nuclear utility for that matter, by January 31, 1998, as required by the standard contract,” the appellate court decision said. “In fact, [the Energy Department] has not even yet performed under the contract.”
The bill for the government still is rising as the utility pays to store high-level nuclear waste and spent nuclear fuel for its Humboldt Bay and Diablo Canyon power plants in California.
The court reached similar conclusions in the Yankee Atomic Electric case, saying “the record shows that the government placed the Yankees in a position requiring immediate steps to find alternate storage” of nuclear wastes.
The “Yankees” refer to three nuclear power plants in Maine, Connecticut and Massachusetts operated by the Yankee Atomic Electric Co.
The lower court said the government must pay the company nearly $143 million for breaching its contract to dispose of the wastes.
The appeals court agreed that the government breached its contract, but disputed how the damages were calculated. The appellate court sent the case back to the Court of Federal Claims to recalculate the damages.