Bob Ferguson of Richland showed it was possible for private citizens to take on the president of the United States and win.
The lawsuit was the first time a citizen had prevailed in court against a U.S. president since Paula Jones sued Bill Clinton for sexual harassment in 1994, Ferguson writes in his latest book, Nuclear Waste in Your Backyard: Who’s to Blame and How to Fix it.
The federal lawsuit, filed by Ferguson and Tri-City business leaders Bill Lampson and Gary Petersen, led to a ruling that the Obama administration needed to respect the constitutional separation of powers and resume work on a license application for the Yucca Mountain, Nev., proposed repository for nuclear waste and used nuclear fuel.
Ferguson’s book, written with historian Michele Gerber of Richland, describes his decision to sue, the political maneuvering that led to the illegal halt of work on the repository and his recommendations to move forward with a national program for nuclear waste and used fuel.
“I really want to inform the public of the need to deal with the issue,” he said. Ferguson worked for more than 50 years in nuclear energy and related fields, including as a Department of Energy official and an entrepreneur.
The Government Accountability Office estimated this month that the DOE’s future liability for managing used nuclear fuel will cost taxpayers $21.4 billion through 2071.
Congress gave DOE the responsibility to take possession of commercial nuclear fuel, but it cannot do that without a national repository. Utilities sued for their costs of managing the fuel in the meantime.
Not having a workable federal system for dealing with nuclear waste also is a powerful argument for not building new nuclear power plants in the United States, as almost every developed nation in the world and many developing nations are, he said in his book.
“We’re being left behind,” he said.
The nation’s dependence on foreign oil is partly responsible for the U.S. position as a debtor nation, Ferguson said. Oil magnate T. Boone Pickens was right, or almost right, when he said the money the U.S. has paid to foreign nations for oil amounts to the greatest transfer of wealth in human history, he said.
“With abundant sources of nuclear-generated electricity, I’m convinced that American ingenuity would very quickly find ways to convert manufacturing industries and vehicles that now operate on oil to operate on electric power,” Ferguson said in his book.
But a larger concern for Ferguson and his motivation for suing Obama was the president’s flouting the rule of law, he said. Obama’s move to shut down work on Yucca Mountain violated his oath of office to execute the law as outlined in the Constitution. Congress named Yucca Mountain as the nation’s nuclear repository and only Congress has the power to change or repeal laws.
The lawsuit led to the release of the NRC safety report on Yucca Mountain last month. It found the repository was capable of containing used fuel and nuclear defense waste, including waste from Hanford, far into the future.
But the nation’s lack of a repository has more to do with politics, than safety, Ferguson said. He blames to Obama and outgoing Senate majority leader Harry Reid of Nevada.
Obama allied himself with Reid and other powerful insiders, Ferguson writes. Reid, who has long opposed a national waste repository in his state, succeeded in getting his staff member Gregory Jaczko onto the NRC, where Jaczko would become chairman and get the technical license review of the repository shut down, according to the book.
Ferguson now recommends that Yucca Mountain be licensed as planned, but the decision to construct it be delayed until an incentive package for Nevada is worked out. He also supports creating large, temporary storage facilities for the waste, among other new policies to allow defense and commercial nuclear waste programs to move forward without unnecessary costs.
His latest book is a followup to his 2012 book, The Cost of Deceit and Delay, which focused on disposal of Hanford and other weapons waste. Ferguson self-published both books.