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Editorial: Heed court’s order on nuke waste delay tactics

A U.S Appeals Court poked a giant hole in the Obama administration’s strategy to placate Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid rather than follow the law that set policy regarding the storage of dangerous nuclear waste. Now, the feds need to drop their leaky strategy of delay and work on a long-term solution.

Federal law gave the Nuclear Regulatory Commission three years to consider a license to store radioactive waste beneath Yucca Mountain. On Tuesday, the U.S. District Court of Appeals ruled that time’s up on an application submitted by the Bush administration in 2008. The court determined the commission had no intention of following the law. Since the deadline passed two years ago, that conclusion looks obvious.

This ruling is a big victory for the state of Washington, which was a lead plaintiff. Other states that are temporarily storing waste, such as Idaho and South Carolina, also have a lot riding on this ruling.

The feds were supposed to open a permanent repository by 1998. Yucca Mountain in Nevada was the choice. But the state’s political delegation, led by Reid, has fought an effective delaying action. Not only is Reid in a powerful position as the leader of the Senate, but Nevada was a swing state in the 2008 election. The Obama administration caved in to Reid by suspending work on Yucca’s license. Ever defiant, Reid shrugged off Tuesday’s ruling, saying it didn’t matter because he would block the funds needed to finish licensing work.

Meanwhile, new leaks have been discovered in the massive holding tanks beneath the Hanford Nuclear Reservation, and toxic plumes are inching closer to the nearby Columbia River. This political turf battle is going to look awfully small if the Northwest’s largest river is ever contaminated. And Hanford is hardly alone. It’s just one of about 80 U.S. sites storing more than 80 tons of high-level nuclear waste.

Under the Tri-Party Agreement of 1989, the feds committed to finding a permanent solution to the waste at Hanford, but progress has been slow and deadlines continually missed. The process of vitrification, turning the waste into glass logs, is only a partial solution, because the logs need to be safely stored for thousands of years.

The feds have already spent $15 billion to prepare the Yucca site, and about $200 million has been raised from Northwest utility customers for the project. The courts are reluctant to tell federal agencies what to do, but the blatant disregard for the law left judges no choice. In unusually harsh language, Judge Arthur Randolph noted that ruling for the NRC would have “significantly altered” the separation of powers in the U.S. Constitution.

The administration has been smacked hard for flouting the law. Further delays will be toxic to its legacy and dangerous for the country.

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