Wall Street Journal

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

House Democrats Oppose Yucca Mountain Ruling

By Ian Talley

WASHINGTON—Several powerful House Democrats are warning the administration that its decision to withdraw funding for nuclear waste disposal at Yucca Mountain is illegal and could cost taxpayers billions of dollars in liabilities.

The chairman of the House Budget Committee, John Spratt (D., N.C.), the House Majority Whip James Clyburn (D., S.C.) and three other lawmakers urged Energy Secretary Steven Chu in a letter late last week to restore funding for the disposal license.

The letter is the latest move in an ongoing political battle over the Nevada waste repository, one that many in the nuclear industry say is injecting additional uncertainty into the market and could delay planned expansion of domestic nuclear power.

"We consider the department's actions contrary to the clear intent of Congress and regard your proposal as prematurely and unwisely removing deep geologic disposal from the options to be considered by the blue-ribbon commission on nuclear waste disposal," the lawmakers wrote.

The Yucca Mountain site is about 100 miles northwest of Las Vegas.

The Department of Energy wasn't immediately able to comment. A spokeswoman last week did say, in response to similar opposition from state regulators, that the DOE "is fully committed to ensuring that the nation meets our long-term storage obligations for nuclear waste."

The lawmakers in their letter said the proposed ending of funding of Yucca Mountain violates the Nuclear Waste Policy Act, which requires the DOE to press ahead expeditiously with that site, and would violate several agreements the DOE made with a number of states. There are already lawsuits pending in two states, Washington and South Carolina, challenging the DOE's authority to circumvent the law.

The legislators also said the administration's decision would increase costs to the U.S. government for failing to meet its nuclear waste responsibilities. Litigation and bureaucratic delays have prevented previous administrations from getting the required depository license. No waste has ever been shipped to the site.

Utilities have filed dozens of claims against the DOE for failing to spend the $16 billion they've paid for waste disposal. Courts have awarded more than $1 billion in damages and settlements, and estimates for potential liabilities range from $12 billion to $50 billion.

Facing pressure from Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D., Nev.), the Obama administration has instead said it may favor temporary storage of waste at the power plants that produce it while technology paves the way for an alternative solution.

Last week, the National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners also objected to the DOE's decision, filing a petition to oppose the withdrawal of the license at the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. The regulators also warned of "the incredible waste of the billions in rate-payer dollars," and that rate payers would be footing the future bill.

It's unclear how the mounting pressure on the administration may guide waste policy on several different fronts.

The DOE dropped $115 million in its proposed 2011 budget for the Yucca Mountain program, but may be forced to reprogram that money by Congress.

The Department of Energy's Atomic Safety and Licensing Board has yet to determine whether it will accept the DOE's requested withdrawal.

And later this week, a special blue-ribbon advisory panel will meet for the first time to begin deliberations on waste disposal options. The administration has made it clear that it doesn't want the panel to consider the Yucca Mountain site.

Write to Ian Talley at ian.talley@dowjones.com

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