Washington State Sues to Prevent Yucca Mountain Shutdown

Published May 31, 2016

The State of Washington, with bipartisan support from the state’s elected officials, has joined a lawsuit filed by South Carolina seeking to prevent the federal government from permanently shutting down the Yucca Mountain depository for spent nuclear fuel.

Washington State Attorney General Rob McKenna (R) filed the suit with the backing of Gov. Christine Gregoire (D). U.S. Senator Patty Murray (D-WA) has also been a vocal opponent of the Yucca shutdown.

$10 Billion Wasted
In 1987 Congress designated Yucca Mountain as the sole candidate for a federal depository for nuclear waste. In 2002 President Bush signed a House joint resolution approving construction of the Yucca Mountain facility. Earlier this year, however, the Obama administration announced it was suspending the facility’s permit application “with prejudice,” meaning it could never be considered again.

“Congress selected Yucca Mountain as the nation’s repository, and [the] government has spent roughly $10 billion on the project. As we indicated previously, the nation has no ready alternatives to deep geologic disposal nor does it have any ready alternatives to Yucca Mountain as a repository site,” McKenna, who is co-chair of National Association of Attorneys General Environment and Energy Committee, said in a press statement.

WA Media Supports Suit
Media outlets in the state expressed support for the lawsuit.

“In an era of dire concerns about the federal deficit and the waste of taxpayer money, the idea the Obama administration would throw away about $10 billion of work at the Yucca site is nothing short of galling. At the very least, the administration should keep Yucca as part of the conversation,” observed the Seattle Times.

Legality of Shutdown Questioned
“We know for sure there is no technical justification for closing Yucca, no legal justification, and no procedural justification for closing Yucca,” said Jack Spencer, a research fellow in nuclear energy policy at the Heritage Foundation. “When we have a President who says he has a transparency, science-first approach to policy, this decision seems to be counter to all these pronouncements.

“Yucca Mountain was to be the nation’s nuclear repository, and the federal statute says it should go there until laws are changed. One of the problems [with what] the administration has done is it has not gone through proper procedure in closing that facility. It did not address the Nuclear Waste Act and subsequent legislation that made very clear that the government would take that waste and put it in Yucca,” Spencer added. 

Spent Fuel Stuck in State
Clinton Crackel, president of the Nuclear Fuels Reprocessing Coalition, observed Washington state’s nuclear facility, the Columbia Generating Station, must keep its spent nuclear fuel in temporary storage units in Washington because of the Obama administration’s decision to close Yucca Mountain.

“The Columbia Generating Station, owned and operated by Energy Northwest, I believe is now having to store spent nuclear fuel in dry cask storage. The Department of Energy’s Hanford Facility has their underground tanks full of radioactive waste from the early days of nuclear weapons development,” Crackel said.

Future in Doubt
Steve Kerekes, spokesman of the Nuclear Energy Institute in Washington, DC, expressed disappointment at the Obama administration’s decision to shut down Yucca Mountain.

“We would like to see [Yucca Mountain] licensing continue, but we recognize political realities,” Kerekes said. “Eventually, America is going to need geological disposal for some of the material that cannot be reprocessed, which is what Yucca Mountain was for.”

Kerekes said Yucca Mountain, located under a remote mountain in the Mojave Desert, is a safe and secure location for the nation’s nuclear spent fuel.

“The science surrounding Yucca Mountain is good, and we would like to see project continue,” said Kerekes.

Thomas Cheplick ([email protected]) writes from Cambridge, Massachusetts.