Congress backed into a nuclear corner
A series of lawsuits filed by nuclearenergy companies against the Department of Energy show the comer into which Congress has backed itself. As such, they give Nevadans some insight into why the Yucca Mountain site is being shoved down the state's, and nation's, throat.
Sixty-five lawsuits have been filed by power plant owners against the Energy Department, totaling billions of dollars in potential damages, all with the same theme. Congress promised in 1982 to provide a storage site for nuclear waste, with the nuclear industry footing the bill for permanent storage. It told the Energy Department to have the site open by 1998.
You can argue the wisdom of this arrangement for a nuclear halflife, but that's not going to make any difference. The nuclear industry has the law on its side, and it wants somebody to do something about it.
That's why the Energy Department started studying three sites - Yucca Mountain in Nevada, Deaf Smith County in Texas and Hanford in Washington - as potential locations for the nuclear dump. But just four years later, in 1987, Congress told the Energy Department there just wasn't enough time and money to research three sites. Yucca Mountain became the only option. If you've ever heard someone refer to the "Screw Nevada" bill, this is what they're talking about.
For the past 17 years, the Energy Department has had nowhere else to look than in the Nevada desert. When it became apparent the site afforded no particular geological safeguards to storing waste, the rules were changed from "see if Yucca will work" to "make Yucca work"
The companies producing radioactive waste, in the meantime, have been contributing to a fund and waiting for the Energy Department to solve their problem - as promised by Congress. The 1998 deadline, contained in contracts signed by the Energy Department in 1983, has long since passed.
And now the scheduled opening of Yucca Mountain, in 2010, is very much in doubt.
Indiana Michigan Power Co., which operates a 2,100-megawatt plant, is seeking $107.7 million in damages because the Energy Department hasn't taken the nuclear waste generated by its two reactors. Testimony in the case this week surmised there will be no repository before 2015.
This is the squeeze put on the Energy Department by a bad decision in 1982 by Congress. This is the squeeze Nevada feels every time it tries to protest the raw deal being foisted on it. This is the squeeze that will go away only when the Nuclear Regulatory Commission says Yucca Mountain won't work safely.
It's a hard thing to pull the plug after a decade of study and $8 billion. It will only get harder after another 10 years and a few more billion.