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S.C. wins ruling on Yucca Mountain nuclear waste site

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By Chuck Crumbo

ccrumbo@scbiznews.com

Published Aug. 13, 2013

S.C. political leaders cheered a federal appeals court order requiring the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to resume work on a permit that could allow nuclear waste to be dumped inside Yucca Mountain in Nevada.

The order issued Tuesday by the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals effectively spurs the NRC back into action, possibly leading to the removal of some 4,000 metric tons of radioactive waste temporarily held at the Savannah River Site in Aiken County and the state’s four commercial nuclear power plants.

The court added that the U.S. Department of Energy must renew its efforts on the Yucca Mountain process and back the licensing process.

Yucca Mountain “Today’s ruling is positive news for South Carolina and our nation,” said Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C. “Yucca Mountain remains the appropriate nuclear waste storage site. In addition, some of the first nuclear waste to be sent to Yucca Mountain would come from Savannah River Site.”

The court, which approved the order by a 2-1 vote, also rebuked the administration of President Barack Obama for delaying a decision on the Yucca Mountain permit.

In 2009 Obama halted the project, which had already cost the government more than $15 billion, withdrawing with prejudice an 8,000-page license application for the Yucca Mountain permit. The president then created a commission to look into explore other options for the disposal of spent nuclear fuel and other radioactive wastes.

Aiken County, along with the states of South Carolina and Washington, state public utility regulators, and others went to court to require the NRC to resume its review of a construction license application for a used nuclear fuel disposal facility at the Nevada site.

In Tuesday’s ruling, the court said that the president cannot disregard federal law because of political differences.

“This decision reaffirms a fundamental truth: the President is not above the law,” said S.C. Attorney General Alan Wilson, whose office sued to get the Yucca Mountain process back on track. “His administration cannot pick and choose which laws to follow and which to ignore.”

Gov. Nikki Haley criticized Obama’s leadership, adding it’s time to resume the permitting process, according to a statement issued by her spokesman.

“The governor is dedicated to keeping South Carolina from becoming a permanent home for this nation’s processed nuclear waste and will continue pushing for Yucca Mountain to be used for its intended purpose,” said the governor’s spokesman, Doug Mayer.

The Nuclear Energy Institute and the Nuclear Waste Strategy Coalition said the 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.”

The industry also called on Congress to provide enough money in the next fiscal year to pay for the NRC's safety review. The NRC estimates that the review process will cost about $99 million, but it has only $11.1 million on hand to do the job.

The industry noted that consumers of electric power have contributed nearly $35 billion in fees and interest to the federal government to be used for nuclear fuel management, which includes the Yucca Mountain depository. South Carolina’s share of those fees is more than $1.2 billion.

Electric utility reaction

Spent fuel presently is stored on site at the nation’s 104 nuclear power plants – including four in South Carolina. While their companies expect the government to fulfill its legal responsibility and manage the storage of used nuclear fuel, spokeswomen said.

“Whether Yucca Mountain happens or not, SCE&G is equipped to store used fuel safely for the long-term at V.C. Summer Nuclear Station,” said Rhonda O’Banion, of South Carolina Electric & Gas, which operates the Fairfield County facility. “In fact, we began preparing in 2007 to incorporate dry fuel storage at V.C. Summer by 2015, and we are adhering to our schedule as planned.”

The combination of wet and dry storage allows SCE&G, which is building two more reactor units at V.C. Summer with its state-operated partner Santee Cooper, to store used fuel safely on site for as long as needed, O’Banion said.

Duke Energy, which operates three commercial nuclear power facilities in Oconee, York, and Darlington counties, supports the court’s ruling, said spokeswoman Rita Sipe.

“Currently, used nuclear fuel is being stored safely and securely at nuclear power plant sites around the country,” Sipe said. “While this can continue for many decades, it is not a permanent solution.

“The federal government should carry out its responsibility to dispose of used fuel in return for the many billions of dollars of nuclear waste fees it has collected from electricity customers.”

Environmentalists oppose the Yucca Mountain project, citing technical problems with the site’s geology. They also believe the Obama administration and Congress need to have a serious discussion about how to deal with nuclear waste.

“The government should not waste any more time or tax dollars on the doomed Yucca project,” said Tom Clements, Southeastern nuclear campaigner for Friends of the Earth. “Instead, there should be a real national conversation about how to move forward with the selection of a repository site for the deadly waste generated by nuclear power and only with the consent of the states in which the sites are being considered.”

In January 1983, President Ronald Reagan signed the Nuclear Waste Policy Act, which created a timetable and procedure for setting up a permanent underground storage facility for high-level radioactive waste.

Also, 65 electric utilities signed contracts agreeing to collect fees from ratepayers to pay for the project. Customers pay 1/10th of one cent per kilowatt hour into the waste fund.

In 2002, Yucca Mountain was designated as the nuclear depository site. Workers have completed most of the site work and have dug a 6-mile-long tunnel into the mountain where the waste would be stored.

Reach Chuck Crumbo 803-318-7539.

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