Nuclear Waste Fee Dropping off Power Bills but Disposal Woes Persist

Thursday, 15 May 2014 09:20 PM

By Sandy Fitzgerald

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The Energy Department is quietly suspending fees for a future nuclear waste dump starting Friday, saving millions of Americans a small charge added into the electric bills but still leaving the government without a place to dump highly radioactive spent fuel.

Since 1983, reports The Los Angeles Times, the government has been collecting $750 million a year and putting it into a trust fund for a future dump site. The fund now contains $31 billion, which will continue to collect interest.

"It is irresponsible on the government's part to not move forward on a program that has already been paid for," said Marvin Fertel, president of the Nuclear Energy Institute, the Washington trade group that sued the government against the fees.

The waste fee collected just one-quarter of a penny for each kilowatt hour of electricity a customer uses, adding just pennies to their electric bills. But over the years, the money added up to a total of $43 billion, with $12 million spent trying to develop the Yucca Mountain nuclear dump in Nevada before the Obama administration blocked it.

Meanwhile, the nuclear waste is piling up. Experts say that over the past nearly 40 years, almost 70,000 metric tons of spent fuel has accumulated at 100 nuclear reactors nationwide.

The $31 million was only about a third of the estimated $100 billion needed for the Yucca Mountain project, and stopping the fee collection could mean that enough money may not be raised.

"I don't see how it is a terrific win for anybody," said Nevada Chief Deputy Attorney General Marta Adams, who led the state's fight to block Yucca Mountain. "It relieves consumers of this charge but it doesn't get rid of the waste."

Officials in Nevada say the nuclear industry sued the government to force Obama to restart licensing at Yucca Mountain. But Fertel and other advocates say they want the government to meet its obligations while providing a place to safely handle nuclear waste.

The fuel is decaying, and is considered a public safety risk.

By not building waste facilities, the government is breaking a promise to nuclear utility companies that the Energy Department would dispose of the spent fuel.

The industry complains that the government left them to deal with the deadly waste, so it filed the lawsuit to block the fees. An appeals court said last year the government had no real plans to build the dump and suspended the fee.

On Wednesday, the Energy Department said it remains committed to finding a solution, but noted that the "timeline for opening Yucca Mountain had already been pushed back by two decades, stalled by public protest and legal opposition, with no end in sight."

The nation's nuclear industries have also used the federal government, saying the lack of a waste facility is driving up their storage and operation costs. Silberg said so far, the industries have won $1 billion in judgments and $1.6 billion in settlements.

The Energy Department says it could be held liable to another $22 billion in judgements through the start of the next decade.

The Yucca Mountain site has been a topic of contention for several years. In 1987, Congress ordered the dump be built at the mountain and inside the Nevada National Security Site.

The location was where nuclear weapons were tested and the site was already contaminated, but the plans drew complaints from Nevada. When Nevada Democrat Harry Reid became Senate majority leader, he said the project would be killed.

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