A precedent-setting decision by the US Court of Federal Claims in Washington DC, in cases involving three shutdown “Yankee” plants in New England – Yankee Rowe, Maine Yankee and Connecticut Yankee – ruled that the federal government must pay their utility owners for failing to solve the nuclear waste disposal problem.

The court ruling, which came in late October, was the first time a federal judge has ruled that nuclear plant owners are entitled to recover monetary damages. Most, if not all, other US nuclear utilities are expected to file similar lawsuits.

In his summary judgment, US Court of Federal Claims Judge James F Merow said the only real question to be decided at trial is what damages should be awarded. The DOE plans to appeal.

Owners of the three “Yankee” plants are seeking $268 million in damages. The US nuclear industry says that federal liability nationwide could reach $53 billion. The utilities have pledged to return any money they collect from the DOE to ratepayers.

Other courts have previously ruled that DOE was obligated to take responsibility for the spent fuel as of 31 January 1998, under terms of the Nuclear Waste Policy Act of 1983, and they have hinted that the Energy Department would be liable for damages. The courts have also noted that the Energy Department has been able to transport spent fuel from foreign reactors and Navy reactors to disposal sites. Hence, the department cannot claim it was impossible for it to meet the deadlines under the law. As of yet, however, no court has ordered DOE to actually begin moving spent fuel offsite.

…As Congress promises to try again on waste Leaders of both houses of Congress have given assurances that nuclear waste reform will be on their agendas in early 1999.

Those assurances come as DOE is receiving mounting pressure from states, which are preparing to cut off payments to the Nuclear Waste Fund (and put the money in escrow), until the the department removes spent fuel now stored onsite at US nuclear facilities.