Lawsuits brought against the Department of Energy (DOE) by nuclear power companies seeking financial compensation for storage costs caused by government delays in accepting their highly radioactive spent fuel for disposal has already cost taxpayers $1.3 billion—and that’s only for the federal government’s current liability for settlements, final judgments and judgments under appeal. The DOE estimates that potential liabilities for these delays will cost $11 billion through the year 2056.
The Nuclear Waste Policy Act of 1982 (NWPA) and the amendment of 1987, designated Yucca Mountain in Nevada for the repository of spent nuclear fuel. The process of accepting spent nuclear fuel at Yucca Mountain was supposed to have begun in 1998, according to the NWPA. Controversy has surrounded this issue from the get-go on the grounds that there is potential for volcanic activity and earthquakes, among other concerns.
The date for accepting spent nuclear fuel at Yucca Mountain had already been pushed back to the year 2020 even prior to the Obama Administration’s decision to close Yucca Mountain. Under the NWPA, facilities in the U.S. that generate spent nuclear fuel have entered into contracts with the DOE that stipulate that the DOE will dispose of these facilities’ spent fuel in return for a fee, but the DOE is not living up to its end of the deal.
Every day that the spent fuel remains at the nuclear power generation sites rather than being carted away to DOE sites costs the companies money for storage. Over prolonged periods of time, these costs—and the number of lawsuits to recoup them—are mounting. According to a Civilian Nuclear Waste Disposal report by Mark Holt, Specialist in Energy Policy http://www.aleec.org/NLE/CRSreports/10May/RL33461.pdf published on July 16, 2010, seventy-two lawsuits were filed against the DOE through February 2010 for missing the waste disposal deadline and the DOE had negotiated 10 settlements. Through year-end 2008, $406 million had been paid under the settlements. As more delay-related costs mount, utilities will continue to file new claims with potential liabilities projected by the DOE to reach $11 billion by the year 2056 (in current dollars).
Adding to the urgency of finding a suitable site for disposal of highly radioactive nuclear waste is the fact that some of the DOE waste is being stored in containers that are not in compliance with state and federal environmental laws. This could result in future fines to the DOE, not to mention the safety hazard for the environment and the population.
While the subject of global warming may be open to debate, the hazards of America’s large stockpiles of dangerous nuclear waste are clear and should be a national priority within the realm of environmental issues. The United States is entering a phase of renewed interest in generating electricity by way of nuclear power, but licensing of new facilities cannot occur unless sufficient waste disposal sites are available. The future of the environment, energy policy and taxpayer money hinges on a rapid and acceptable solution to nuclear waste disposal.