The Feds’ Nuclear Shakedown

Thanks for a new ruling, the government can no longer collect billions in fees for a nuclear waste repository that doesn’t exist. What took so long?

Nevada history is littered with tales of out-of-state suckers who dumped their fortunes into over-hyped holes in the ground.

It’s rare and refreshing whenever some of those rubes finally wise up and stop throwing good money after bad.

The U.S. Court of Appeals this week ruled that the Department of Energy no longer may force utility customers to pour millions into a construction fund for the mothballed Yucca Mountain nuclear waste repository. Although Yucca occasionally makes a death rattle—and its diehard congressional supporters continue to tout its potential—the costly dump has been effectively terminated by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada. (It’s in keeping with our metaphor that Reid is the son of a hard-rock miner from the tiny town of Searchlight, where many a dreamer sank a life savings digging holes that didn’t pan out.)

But Yucca’s closure and political radioactivity haven’t kept the DOE from continuing to pile up fees in the name of the proposed repository’s potential return from the dead. Officials also have argued that, sooner or later, those billions will be needed to construct a suitable storage site no matter where it may be. And under current law Yucca is the only site.

On Tuesday, a three-judge panel made the federal department’s task even more difficult by cutting off its ability to collect more fees. Although it might be wishful thinking on the judges’ part, they recommended the DOE request Congress pass legislation to end the practice for good.

It’s not chump change they’re dealing with. The government rakes in hundreds of millions a year in the name of Yucca’s construction. Since the nuclear waste fund began in 1983, the DOE has taken in approximately $35.8 billion from utility customers. The annual interest alone generates $1.3 billion. (Approximately $10 billion already has been spent.)

But, the judges decided, as long as the government fails to offer a viable alternative to Yucca Mountain, those nuclear power plant operators shouldn’t be charged the annual fee.

Senior Circuit Judge Laurence Silberman wrote, “According to the Secretary, the final balance of the fund used to pay the costs of disposal could be somewhere between a $2 trillion deficit and a $4.9 trillion surplus. This range is so large as to be absolutely useless as an analytical technique to be employed to determine – as the Secretary is obligated to do – the adequacy of the annual fees paid by petitioners, which could appear to be its purpose. (This presentation reminds us of the lawyer’s song in the musical, ‘Chicago,’ – ‘Give them the old razzle dazzle.’) Thus, the Secretary claims that the range is so great he cannot determine whether the fees are adequate or excessive,” which is the same argument the judges laughed out of court a year ago.”

At the National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners, Executive Director Charles Gray expressed relief that bordered on elation.

“Nuclear utilities and their consumers have paid more than $30 billion since the early 1980s for the construction of a nuclear-waste repository,” Gray said. “These consumers have upheld their end of the deal, but unfortunately all they have to show for their investment is a hole in the Nevada desert.”