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Good news for a bad waste situation

Good news for a bad waste situation

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Dec. 19 Daily News editorial

The states of Washington and South Carolina will have their day in court to argue the case for completing work on a national nuclear waste repository near Nevada's Yucca Mountain. The U.S. Court of Appeals in Washington, D.C., ruled last week that a lawsuit brought by the two states against the Obama administration's politically motivated attempt to abandon the project may proceed.

This is good news for Washington, South Carolina and all other states where large amounts of nuclear waste await eventual shipment to the Yucca Mountain facility. Abandoning this project would leave an estimated 77,000 tons of radioactive waste unsecured at nuclear sites across the country. For Washingtonians, it also would mean delaying the clean-up of Hanford nuclear reservation, the nation's most contaminated nuclear site, for decades.

We can't know how the courts will eventually rule on the Obama administration's unilateral move to permanently walk away from this project — a project Congress initiated and voted to fund eight years ago. But we do know what's behind that move. Political expediency has guided President Obama's hand on this issue from the time he began his 2008 campaign for the presidency. Then it was the political prize of Nevada voters, who mostly oppose having the nation's nuclear waste repository in their backyard. Since taking office, it's been about maintaining a Democratic majority in the Senate. More specifically, it's been about keeping Nevada Democrat Harry Reid on the job as Senate Majority Leader.

We always viewed the administration's politically motivated bid to shut down this project as irresponsible to the extreme. The careful research that identified the Nevada site as most suitable for storage of the nation's nuclear waste stretches back more than three decades. Billions have been spent to date on planning and construction work. Most irresponsible, though, is the administration's seeming indifference to the fact that there is no Plan B for the safe disposal of the tens of thousands of tons of nuclear waste now scattered around the country at 131 sites.

The federal government will remain contractually obligated to take possession of that waste, with or without the completion of the Yucca Mountain repository. The government agreed to begin taking possession by 1998 — a deadline that obviously proved far too optimistic. In exchange, commercial utilities agreed to pay for the repository and began collecting a fee from ratepayers to build a construction fund. Northwest ratepayers who receive nuclear-generated power have paid at least $290 million into that fund since 1984.

If the federal government does abandon the Yucca Mountain project, as this administration is seeking to do, taxpayers will be liable for billions of dollars in damages. Indeed, missing that 1998 deadline already has cost taxpayers several hundred million dollars in legal damages. By some estimates, walking away from the project could leave the federal government legally liable for upwards of $60 billion. It also would pretty much rule out the nuclear option that the president has been touting of late as part of the nation's energy future.


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