HANFORD — A Nuclear Regulatory Commission legal panel put back on track Tuesday a proposal for a national nuclear waste dump in Nevada, at least until the full commission decides whether the Department of Energy can withdraw its plan.
Energy Secretary Steven Chu doesn't have the authority to pull the plug on a process that Congress started when it passed the Nuclear Waste Policy Act in 1982, the NRC Atomic Safety and Licensing Board said in a 47-page order issued in Rockville, Md.
"Congress directed both that DOE file the application ... and that the NRC consider the application and issue a final, merits-based decision," the panel said. It said letting the department "single-handedly derail" the process would be "contrary to congressional intent."
In the Tri-Cities, Gary Petersen of the Tri-City Development Council was pleased by the ruling.
"It's very good for our case," said Petersen, TRIDEC's vice president of Hanford programs. Already billions of dollars have been spent on the proposal over the last two decades, and to start again would require a couple of decades and twice as much money, Petersen said.
DOE doesn't have a technical reason to terminate the project, he said. "It's a political issue."
Three Tri-City business leaders -- Bill Lampson, Bob Ferguson and Gary Petersen -- hailed Tuesday's decision. The men sued President Obama in February, asking a federal court to decide if he violated the law over the repository.
"This decision is a turning point in our fight against the DOE to stop their unlawful termination of Yucca Mountain. We look forward to Sept. 23 ... when the U.S. Court of Appeals in the District of Columbia is scheduled to hear oral arguments on our case along with the other cases including Washington State, South Carolina, Akien County and others that have been consolidated," said Bob Ferguson in a news release.
Peterson added, "We are confident that we will prevail in court and that DOE will be ordered to restart this important national program. In the meantime, we call on our congressional delegation to seek whatever means to preserve the scientific records and provide funding in the event the court orders DOE to proceed with the program."
Gov. Chris Gregoire said the ruling supports the stance of Washington and other states.
"It would be a mistake, at this late stage, to abandon Yucca Mountain as the national nuclear repository. Here in our state, the federal government's construction of the Hanford Waste Treatment Plant, which began in 2001, is nearly halfway done. The $12.3 billion plant, which is expected to be completed in 2019, was designed to meet specific standards of the Yucca facility," she said.
With no other alternatives for repositories being considered and with nowhere to store treated waste, the WTP investment could be wasted, she said.
"We can't allow that to happen, and we're pleased that the federal licensing panel ruled against abandoning Yucca," she added.
Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., said in a statement, "It is clear from today's decision that the Department of Energy does not have the authority to unilaterally attempt to terminate the Yucca Mountain project. Given today's decision, the department should stop all current actions to terminate the project."
Murray said that over the years, Congress, independent studies and previous administrations have all pointed to, voted for and funded Yucca Mountain as the nation's best option for a nuclear repository. As a result of which a lot of effort and time has been spent at Hanford and nuclear waste sites across the country to treat and package nuclear waste that will be sent to the Yucca Mountain facility.
"Without a repository, those sites and the communities that support them have been left in limbo," she said.
Rep. Doc Hastings, R-Wash, said, the decision "affirms what I have been saying all along -- Yucca Mountain remains the legally designated national repository for spent nuclear fuel and high-level defense waste, and the Department of Energy has no authority to withdraw the license application. Only Congress can change the law.
"In light of this decision, I strongly encourage the Obama administration to halt all actions to reprogram funds, terminate contracts, and further dismantle Yucca Mountain. It's time for this administration to adhere to the law and move forward with bringing Yucca Mountain on line," he said.
Nevada state and Energy Department officials promised to appeal to the full five-member commission. They have 10 days to appeal.
"The department remains confident that we have the legal authority to withdraw the application for the Yucca Mountain repository," Energy Department spokeswoman Jenni Lee said in a statement. "We believe the administrative board's decision is wrong."
Washington's top legal officer, Attorney General Rob McKenna, said in a statement he was encouraged the board recognized the administration's lack of authority to unilaterally kill the project and praised the expertise of his legal team as key to the ruling.
"As our team argued, roughly two-thirds of the nation's defense-related, high-level radioactive waste is housed and being cleaned up at Hanford," McKenna said. "Although some of this waste will be permanently stored at Hanford, Congress has selected Yucca Mountain as the nation's repository for high-level radioactive waste, including certain waste from Hanford."
The ruling from the NRC's Atomic Safety and Licensing Board is the latest in the battle to protect Washington's interests and ensure that the Yucca Mountain site continues to be evaluated as Congress directed. Washington state is also pursuing legal action in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit. The court ordered expedited review in that case, with oral argument expected in late September, said McKenna's Office.
The panel's ruling dealt a blow to President Obama's effort to kill the Yucca Mountain project -- a campaign promise he made and a longtime goal for the Nevada congressional delegation and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid.
"The full commission will ... make the final decision," Reid, D-Nev., said in a statement Tuesday. "Our country has some of the best scientific minds in the world, and I am confident they can come up with a safer solution to deal with the nation's nuclear waste."
The commission is chaired by Gregory Jaczko, a former Reid staff science adviser who has said he's convinced that used nuclear reactor fuel can be maintained safely and securely for decades where it is, at commercial power plants in 31 states.
The fate of the Yucca Mountain project is seen as key for Reid's bid for a fifth Senate term against conservative tea party-backed GOP challenger Sharron Angle. Angle, a former Nevada state lawmaker, favors using the Yucca Mountain site for nuclear waste reprocessing.
Bruce Breslow, executive director of Nevada's Agency for Nuclear Projects and the top state official working to stop the project, said his state "respects but disagrees with" the ruling, and would appeal.