It was gratifying to see reason trump politics last week -- let's hope it lasts.
On Tuesday, a Nuclear Regulatory Commission legal panel issued a 47-page order that ought to prevent the Obama administration from further dismantling the nation's nuclear waste program.
The order validates what many have been saying all along -- that Energy Secretary Steven Chu doesn't have the authority to unilaterally scuttle plans for a nuclear waste repository at Nevada's Yucca Mountain.
The three-judge panel denied Chu's request to withdraw the government's application for a license to operate a repository at the site.
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Federal law requires the Department of Energy to apply for a license, and it stipulates that the NRC evaluate the application, the judges found. Congress can change the law, but the Obama administration can't simply decide to ignore it, according to the panel.
It's the right finding, of course. We're a nation of laws. Anytime a political leader circumvents the law, it weakens the foundation of our democracy.
There's also a more practical consideration -- if President Obama can unilaterally discard the nation's nuclear waste policy, what's to stop the next president from abandoning the next plan?
So far, $14 billion of the public's money has been spent studying Yucca Mountain's potential to house high-level nuclear wastes safely. How much more will be spent on dead ends if the process is left to any administration's whim?
The danger isn't just that nuclear wastes will be stranded indefinitely at temporary storage sites spread across the nation. The absence of a concrete plan for dealing with the waste stream is also certain to hinder the nuclear industry's revival.
The Tri-Cities and the rest of the Northwest have a keen interest in the outcome of this debate. The wastes stranded by abandoning Yucca Mountain would include Hanford's high-level defense wastes.
Politics are clearly behind the administration's decision. Keeping the repository out of Nevada would fulfill a campaign promise Obama made to that state's voters in 2008.
And this year, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid faces a tough re-election campaign that could hinge on whether he's perceived to have enough clout to stop the project.
Opponents to Yucca Mountain raise technical issues. But under the law, the NRC is responsible for evaluating the technical merits of the site, and it has the right skills to complete the task.
That's what the three-judge panel concluded, and given the enormous political stakes at play, their ruling is testament to the independence of the judiciary.
But the issue is far from settled. DOE and Nevada immediately announced plans to appeal to the full five-member commission.
NRC Chairman Gregory Jaczko is Reid's former science adviser. According to The Associated Press, Jaczko has already said he believes used nuclear reactor fuel can be safely stored for decades at reactor sites across America.
Opponents of Yucca Mountain shouldn't count on an advantage from Jaczko's thoughts about temporary fuel storage or his association with Reid.
Neither has any connection to the judicial panel's core finding -- that the Obama administration lacks the authority to withdraw its license request.
It'll take a convoluted twist of logic to decide otherwise.
There's a second front in the fight to keep Yucca Mountain on track. Washington state, South Carolina, Aiken County, S.C., and a coalition of Tri-City business leaders have filed suit in federal court. Their consolidated case is scheduled for a hearing Sept. 23.
The first ruling in this case was the right one. It will be a dangerous extension of presidential power if subsequent decisions don't follow suit.