The Nuclear Regulatory Commission is "flouting the law" by not conducting a licensing review of the proposed Yucca Mountain nuclear waste dump in Nevada, a federal appeals court said Tuesday.
The ruling was a victory of sorts for those who want the proposed dump to open but may have little practical impact in the long-running dispute over Yucca Mountain. The Obama administration and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid hope to kill the project.
The appeals court, in a 2-1 decision, said the NRC must resume a review of the license application, even though the agency has only enough funding for several weeks of technical work on the license.
Yucca Mountain was designated as the nation's sole repository for high-level nuclear waste during the George W. Bush administration, which sought to license the facility and begin sending 70 million metric tons of highly radioactive waste to the site from reactors around the nation.
But in September 2010, the NRC, led by Obama appointee Gregory Jaczko, ordered the license review halted, executing Obama's and Reid's goal of stopping the project.
In its ruling, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia said the order was not supported by the law.
Only $11 million of funding for the license review remains, enough for several weeks of work and far short of the amount necessary to process the application for Yucca Mountain to begin operation.
Since Congress is unlikely to approve additional funding, the ruling appears to be a symbolic victory for the plaintiffs, which were led by South Carolina and Washington state, both of which have large amounts of waste waiting to be buried.
Reid, a Nevada Democrat who has led the fight to kill Yucca Mountain, dismissed the importance of the ruling at an energy conference he sponsors in Las Vegas.
"The fact is, they have no money," Reid told reporters. "The place is locked up, it's padlocked. Nothing is happening with Yucca Mountain."
Nevada has used every ounce of its political muscle to kill the project, asserting that it was wrong for the rest of the nation to send all of its nuclear waste to a state that does not have a single commercial nuclear reactor of its own.
The federal government is legally obligated to take the waste from nuclear plants across the nation, which have accumulated so much waste that they could just about fill all of Yucca Mountain if it were opened today. So far, electricity consumers of nuclear power plants have paid $35 billion into a trust fund to use for nuclear fuel disposal, and the delays have triggered another area of litigation that has cost the federal government millions of dollars.
The Nuclear Energy Institute, a trade group, along with the Nuclear Waste Strategy Coalition, said the ruling made "a clear signal regarding the NRC's obligation to review the Department of Energy's license application for a repository at Yucca Mountain and to issue a final decision granting or denying the license."
The institute said it expected the NRC to immediately resume its scientific evaluation of Yucca Mountain, though that would require action by Congress, and the federal courts have no ability to order funding for the effort.
"The nuclear energy industry fully expects the NRC to take all necessary steps to immediately resume its independent scientific evaluation of the Yucca Mountain license application, as directed by the court. Similarly, the Energy Department must renew its efforts on this project and fully support the licensing process," the institute said.
The Obama administration created a blue-ribbon panel to find an alternative to Yucca Mountain, and in 2012 it recommended that the federal government create an "interim" storage facility somewhere in the nation for the nuclear waste, while it begin an entirely new political process to find a permanent site.