Yucca Mountain
NRC
Construction efforts at Yucca Mountain were abandoned in 2010, leaving an empty tunnel in a mountainside.

So long as the U.S. government is going to stand around shrugging its shoulders over the nation’s growing nuclear waste stockpile, it must stop charging nuclear power plant owners $750 million a year in waste-storage fees.

That was the ruling of a federal appeals court on Tuesday. It’s the latest twist in a decades-long saga over the fate of the plutonium and other radioactive waste that’s piling up at nuclear plants across the country — more than 70,000 tons so far.

In 1987, Congress directed the federal government to prepare a nuclear waste dump site at Yucca Mountain in Nevada. The government has collected about $30 billion in fees from nuclear power plants to fund the project since then, and spent $15 billion on the controversial project, Bloomberg reports.

But for some reason the plan to dump all that waste in the Nevada countryside is not popular among Nevadans, most notably Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D). He helped convince the Obama administration in 2010 to abandon planning and construction efforts for the Yucca Mountain waste repository.

In August, a federal appeals court declared that decision illegal, saying it ignored the 1987 law, and ordered the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission to resume the Yucca planning efforts. The NRC says it lacks the needed funds, but it has begun begrudgingly moving forward with “an incremental approach.”

Meanwhile, power plant operators have been suing the U.S. government, successfully forcing it to pay their nuclear waste storage bills. That’s because the government has been collecting fees to pay for a solution to the waste problem but has failed to provide one. Last week alone, courts ordered the U.S. Department of Energy to compensate three power plant owners to the tune of more than $200 million for waste storage costs.

And now, Tuesday’s ruling threatens to cut off funding that could be used to pay for an eventual solution, if one is ever forthcoming. From Bloomberg:

The U.S. Department of Energy was ordered by a federal appeals court to move toward ending a fee utilities pay for nuclear waste disposal because the government has no alternative to the canceled Yucca Mountain repository. …

Because the agency hasn’t come up with a legally adequate fee assessment, it was ordered to send Congress a proposal to change the fee to zero until it “chooses to comply with the act as it is currently written, or until Congress enacts an alternative waste management plan,” the court ruled.

The decision today was hailed by the utilities and nuclear power-plant operators who brought the suit and have been frustrated with the Obama administration’s decision to stop work on Yucca without providing an alternative.

Nobody in the administration seems to want to think about the country’s nuclear waste problem — even though they’re all too happy to promote the construction of new reactors.

Some members of Congress, meanwhile, are trying to establish a new bureaucracy to give the waste conundrum the attention it deserves. The Nuclear Waste Administration Act [PDF], sponsored by Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) and currently before the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources, would create a nuclear waste administration and a process for finding sites where the waste could be stored.

Finding such sites would, of course, be a most unenviable task.