COLUMBIA SC — Nuclear industry boosters and S.C. lawmakers were encouraged Tuesday by a court ruling they hope could restart the stalled Yucca Mountain atomic waste dump so that utilities will have a place to send high-level radioactive refuse from power plants.
A federal appeals court ruled that the Nuclear Regulatory Commission no longer can put off processing a license that, if approved, eventually would allow the Yucca Mountain site to open in the Nevada desert. The NRC put the license on hold after President Barack Obama took office in 2009 and abandoned support for the project, citing environmental concerns. The appeals court said the NRC has been violating federal law by not moving ahead with the permit.
The case is of particular interest in South Carolina, where the fate of Yucca Mountain could determine whether the Savannah River Site near Aiken eventually is named as a temporary replacement for the Nevada disposal ground.
The United States now has no permanent place to dispose of the estimated 70,000 metric tons of high-level waste, which can be dangerous for centuries.
Environmentalists and nuclear industry supporters disagree on whether Yucca Mountain should open. Environmental groups want the waste stored where it was generated, such as at atomic power plants.
Conservatives and atomic energy supporters favor Yucca Mountain. There is more general agreement in South Carolina that SRS should not be the nation’s permanent replacement for Yucca.
Republican Gov. Nikki Haley and many of South Carolina’s federal lawmakers applauded the court’s decision Tuesday, saying it’s a step toward jump-starting Yucca Mountain.
“President Obama and his administration have failed to lead on this issue,’’ Haley spokesman Doug Mayer said. “The governor is dedicated to keeping South Carolina from becoming a permanent home for this nation’s processed nuclear waste and will continue pushing for Yucca Mountain to be used for its intended purpose.”
Republican U.S. Sens. Lindsey Graham of Seneca and Tim Scott of North Charleston, as well as Republican U.S. Reps. Joe Wilson of Lexington and Jeff Duncan of Laurens, were among those Tuesday applauding the court’s decision.
Despite strong support for Yucca Mountain among S.C. lawmakers, environmentalists said the federal appeals court ruling won’t save the project. There isn’t nearly enough money to process the Yucca Mountain license application, so the NRC won’t be able to complete the task, they said. The NRC has about $11 million to process the permit.
“In reality, this ruling will have no effect on the nation’s nuclear waste disposition program and will only force the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to waste $11.1 million (in) tax dollars on a dead-end project,” said Katherine Fuchs, nuclear subsidies campaigner with Friends of the Earth. “The NRC will quickly spend the remaining funds and then Congress must go back to the drawing board to develop new laws on how highly radioactive spent fuel is managed.”
Their sentiments echoed those of dissenting Appeals Court Judge Merrick Garland, who said the court’s decision to begin processing the permit without enough money “amounts to little more than ordering the commission to spend part of those funds unpacking its boxes and the remainder packing them up again.’’
Tom Clements, a Friends of the Earth official in South Carolina, said the ultimate battle over the future of Yucca Mountain will come in Congress. If Congress wants the project, it can appropriate money for Yucca Mountain, he said.
The mixed messages flowing from Tuesday’s appeals court ruling only reinforce the bitter divide pitting Western lawmakers and some environmental groups against U.S. utilities and lawmakers from other parts of the country. Some lawmakers from the West – led by U.S. Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nevada – say Yucca Mountain isn’t safe enough to handle the atomic waste.
Project supporters in the East, where most of the nation’s nuclear power plants are located, say the hollowed out mountain is more than suitable in part because the water table is so low in the western state and groundwater would be less threatened.
In South Carolina, waste from the Savannah River Site also was scheduled to go to Yucca Mountain.
A spokesman for the NRC said Tuesday the agency was reviewing the decision. He declined further comment. Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz characterized the Yucca Mountain project as at “a complete stalemate’’ with no evidence that will change
The Associated Press contributed