Texas PUC Commissioner Cheers Nuclear Waste Fee Ruling

Modular concrete canisters containing nuclear waste are shown at the bottom of a storage pit near Andrews, Texas.
Modular concrete canisters containing nuclear waste are shown at the bottom of a storage pit near Andrews, Texas.

A Texas public utility commissioner on Tuesday applauded a federal appeals court’s order that the U.S. Department of Energy stop collecting fees from utilities to fund a long controversial and now shuttered nuclear waste project.

“It’s about time,” Commissioner Ken Anderson told the Tribune. “They’ve been collecting fees for years, and we’ve got nothing to show for it." 

Since 1983, federal law has required utilities to pay fees into a fund meant to finance permanent nuclear waste storage that never materialized.

But on Tuesday morning, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia said the federal government must stop charging utilities until it decides on a permanent way to store the nuclear waste — either at the long-planned Yucca Mountain site in Nevada, or elsewhere.

“Thankfully, because of today’s actions, nuclear power consumers will no longer have to pay for the government’s mishandling of this program,” said Charles Gray, executive director of the National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners, the plaintiff in the case.

In total, utility ratepayers across the country have chipped in close to $18 billion to the federal Nuclear Waste Fund, according to the Nuclear Energy Institute. The fund's unspent balance now tops $30 billion, with about $1.3 billion in interest accruing each year.

Texans have contributed about $678 million to the fund. Ratepayers in just 10 other states have paid more.    

Close to 70,000 metric tons of spent uranium rods are stored at operating or closed reactor sites throughout the country. About 2,210 metric tons sit in Texas. Those sites, mostly meant to be temporary, are filling up.

Compared with permanent repositories, experts consider the temporary sites more vulnerable to natural disasters, and fears have only grown following the deadly earthquake and tsunami that rocked Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant in 2011.

For more than 20 years, Yucca Mountain was considered the permanent option, and the federal government had spent tens of millions of dollars preparing it to accept the country’s nuclear waste. Facing significant political pressure, however, the Obama administration has abandoned the plans.

The federal government’s about-face has long stirred anger among state utility commissioners as ratepayers continued to contribute to the waste fund.

“This is a big deal,” Anderson said. “If the government doesn’t appeal, that’ll save our ratepayers some money.”

The Energy Department, which said it is reviewing the order, argued in court that suspending the fees could shift the burden of financing nuclear waste disposal to future ratepayers. 

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