Courtesy of U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission
Entrance to Yucca Mountain tunnel, under construction (November 2007 photo)

A federal appeals court has ruled that the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission has violated a federal energy statute and directed it to restart its review of a proposed nuclear waste disposal site beneath Nevada’s Yucca Mountain.

But NRC has limited funds on hand to deal with the Dept. of Energy’s application for the waste repository—let alone to build a storage facility at the Nevada site or in another location—leaving the next chapter uncertain in what already has been a 30-year saga.

In a 2-1 decision issued on Aug. 13, a three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit said NRC failed to comply with the Nuclear Waste Policy Act. That 1983 statute gave the commission a three-year deadline to review and decide on an application to build a repository for spent fuel and high-level radioactive waste at Yucca Mountain.

David McIntyre, an NRC spokesman, said in an Aug. 14 emailed statement, “We are reviewing the decision.”

Niketa Kumar, a DOE spokesperson, said via email, “While the Energy Dept. is not a party to this case, we are carefully reviewing the D.C. Circuit decision and will respond appropriately to whatever steps the NRC takes in response to the decision.”

If the NRC decides to appeal, it could seek a decision by the full D.C. Circuit or ask the U.S. Supreme Court to hear the case.

Judge Brett M. Kavanaugh, writing for the appellate court’s majority, said, “As things stand…the commission is simply flouting the law.”

Kavanaugh added: "No law states that the commission should decline to spend previously appropriated funds on the licensing process. No law states that the commission should shut down the licensing process." He noted that the NRC has $11.1 million in appropriated money for the licensing review.

Following the court’s ruling, two industry groups—the Nuclear Energy Institute and the Nuclear Waste Strategy Coalition—said in a statement, “The nuclear energy industry fully expects the NRC to take all necessary steps to immediately resume its independent scientific evaluation of the Yucca Mountain license application, as directed by the court.”

In June 2008, DOE filed an application to the NRC seeking approval to build the repository at Yucca Mountain, which is about 90 miles northwest of Las Vegas.