Courts a welcome barrier to repository dismantling

The Obama administration's dogged pursuit of Sen. Harry Reid's agenda may at last have hit a barrier it can't surmount or ignore.

The question of whether the Department of Energy is breaking the law by dismantling the Yucca Mountain nuclear repository in Reid's Nevada has jumped from the political arena to the federal courts.

Now the court has lifted its stay that allowed the dismantling to proceed, even though its very legality is challenged by Congress, states and private citizens.

Congress passed the law declaring Yucca Mountain the repository for spent nuclear fuel and other waste after a nationwide search and scientific studies.

Reid, Democratic majority leader in the Senate, enlisted President Obama's help in keeping the Department of Energy from continuing the construction work that was well under way (and which already had consumed $10 billion in tax dollars).

The president issued the order and DOE dutifully fell in line. Progress stopped and dismantling began.

Reid barely emerged with a personal victory in the November elections.

His Democratic Party is weakened in the Senate and come January will no longer have the majority in the House.

But it was Congress that passed the legislation and Presidents Reagan and George W. Bush who narrowed the search down to Yucca Mountain. (Hanford had been among the three finalists for the repository.)

President Obama sought to intrude the power of the presidency into the mix retroactively.

It has worked, in that bureaucrats don't dare go against the president's orders, but members of Congress, including especially our own Republican Rep. Doc Hastings and Democratic Sen. Patty Murray, both of Washington, are in the leadership of the fight to stop the dismantling.

Now the court adds a third powerful force.

Whether the court will rule for the administration or against it, we of course, do not know.

But by lifting the stay of its order to stop the deconstruction, we think the court has sent a strong message.

Meanwhile, under other laws involving nuclear waste, the United States (read taxpayers) owe billions of dollars in penalties to nuclear power companies and other nuclear facilities for not delivering the repository they were contractually guaranteed in 1998.

Twelve years of unpaid debts to nuclear facilities seems to us to be counterproductive, at least, in the defense of the United States against terrorists.

The Nuclear Regulatory commissioners, who are part of the decision-making process for Yucca Mountain, seem biased in favor of following the president's political wishes.

That leaves, for the moment, a U.S. District Court in the District of Columbia to sort through this mess.

We're reminded of something Kate Riley, former editorial page editor of the Herald, wrote in The Seattle Times last year:

"The Obama administration was supposed to bring science back into federal decision-making. And transparency. And change we can believe in.

"Where is that change and transparency when making scientific decisions about the nation's high-level nuclear waste?

"Oh, there's science involved -- political science."