DOE sued again on spent fuel delay

28 February 1998

Electric utilities and state attorneys generals filed still another lawsuit in January charging the Department of Energy with breach of contract for its failure to begin moving the spent fuel now stored at nuclear plant sites around the United States.

The new lawsuit, the latest in an ongoing legal battle between the nuclear industry and the Energy Department, was filed on 31 January 1998. That’s when the DOE officially defaulted on an obligation specified in the Nuclear Waste Policy Act of 1982 for the federal government to take title to the commercial spent fuel. In return for that pledge, electric utilities signed contracts which required them to contribute into the nuclear waste disposal trust fund. To date, they have contributed nearly $14 billion to the fund.

According to US industry data, 17 US nuclear reactors at 10 sites have already run out of room in water-filled temporary storage pools and have had to store spent fuel in dry casks. This year, the industry says 27 more reactors will run out of pool space, forcing them to look for expensive storage alternatives. In essence, the industry says the DOE’s failure to meet its obligations forces them to pay twice for a spent fuel solution: once through their contributions to the waste fund and again by buying new storage casks.

The industry says an opinion by a court last year makes the DOE liable for any losses they incur as a result of the federal delay, including the lost income that could occur if any nuclear plants are forced to shut down for lack of storage space. Some utilities, such as Northern States Power, the owner and operator of the two-unit Prairie Island station in Minnesota, have agreed with local officials not to expand their dry cask storage. Prairie Island would run out of spent fuel storage space in 2007, long before its operating licence is due to expire.

DOE says it can’t move the utilities’ spent fuel off site until congress and the president approve a site for a permanent repository. The energy department rejected a request from 27 US utilities on 12 January to stop paying fees into the waste fund. President Clinton remains adamantly opposed to building an interim spent fuel storage site in Nevada, despite overwhelming support for it in Congress, on grounds that this would prejudge the site at Yucca Mountain, Nevada, which has been proposed for a permanent repository.

Meanwhile, a group of utilities is seeking to build a privately constructed, 40 000 t spent fuel storage facility in Skull Valley, Utah, on land owned by the Goshute Indians. In January, the NRC’s Atomic Safety and Licensing Board held a preliminary round of hearings on the proposed facility, which if approved could begin receiving spent fuel in 2002. Another site near Riverton, Wyoming, is also under consideration.

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