The federal government must resume work on the Yucca Mountain repository in Nevada that would store the high-level nuclear waste from Hanford and other sites around the country, a federal appeals court said today.
In what amounts to a judicial smackdown of the Obama administration, the court said the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and the Obama administration can't override Congress, which ordered the repository built in 2002.
Washington state, which is the home to an estimated 56 million gallons of highly toxic nuclear waste from the production of nuclear warheads at Hanford, had joined the lawsuit against the commission. Along with South Carolina and some residents of the Tri-Cities, Washington sought a writ of mandamus, or order from the court for the federal government to follow the law. Today they got what they wanted …
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In a 2-1 decision, the appeals court said the commission had no right to disregard the law and suspend the process for licensing the repository, that was planned for an area deep in Yucca Mountain, Nevada.
“This ruling is great news for Washington state—especially residents in the Tri-Cities area near the Hanford Nuclear Reservation—who have been waiting for this project to move forward,” State Attorney General Bob Ferguson said in a statement announcing the decision.
Federal law called for the NRC to either approve or reject a license application for a proposed waste repository within three years. The U.S. Department of Energy applied for a license for Yucca Mountain in 2008, and Congress appropriated at least $11 million for the process. The deadline passed without a decision.
That's because after the department applied for the license, Barack Obama was elected. He had campaigned against the repository and one of his chief Senate allies, Democratic Leader Harry Reid of Nevada, was a longtime opponent.
But Obama can't disregard the law, the court majority said.
“The president may not decline to follow a statutory mandate or prohibition simply because of policy objections,” Judge Brett Kavanaugh wrote in the majority decision.
“By it's own admission, the Commission has no intention of complying with the law,” the court said in its majority opinion. “Rather, the Commission has simply shut down its review.”
Completion of a permanent home for the nation's high-level nuclear waste has taken on heightened concern in Washington in recent months with reports from the Energy Department that a double walled tank with highly radioactive sludge and liquids are believed to be leaking at Hanford.