Our Voice: Yucca Mountain ruling victory for rule of law

A lot of folks across our nation, including our president, don't understand the importance of Yucca Mountain.

Heck, most people wouldn't even recognize the reference.

But, then again, most communities don't have a pile of nuclear waste that needs to find a permanent home for storage.

Yucca Mountain, about 90 miles northwest of Las Vegas, has long been seen as a potential repository for used commercial nuclear power and defense waste. The Department of Energy began studying the site as a potential repository in 1978. In 1987, Congress amended the Nuclear Waste Policy Act to include only Yucca Mountain for consideration. During his 2008 campaign, President Obama made a pledge to stop the process, which he followed through on two years later.

The Tri-Cities was quick to react with top business leaders forming a group that filed suit, saying President Obama's actions were a violation of the Nuclear Waste Policy Act created by Congress.

The U.S. Court of Appeals issued a decision in August directing the Obama administration to respect the statutory separation of powers and ordered work to resume on a Department of Energy licensing application for the Yucca Mountain site.

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission has directed its staff to pick up where it left off in the application's review. One volume of the five planned had been completed in 2010, but the work stopped after the order from Obama.

The Court of Appeals acted just as it should, reminding us all of the reason the U.S. Constitution took care to separate the powers of our nation's government between three branches, creating checks and balances to prevent one group from having too much control.

In this case, the executive branch got checked by the judicial in a matter involving the legislative.

But it may be a small victory for Yucca Mountain proponents. The NRC says it has $11 million budgeted for the study of Yucca Mountain. It needs $8 million just to start up the study again, and $100 million to complete the full review.

With just $11 million in NRC's coffers, the court order "amounts to little more than ordering the commission to spend part of those funds unpacking its boxes and the remainder packing them up again," said Chief Judge Merrick Garland in the dissenting opinion.

Attorneys arguing for the project review say the NRC has enough money to issue the necessary safety and evaluation reports for the licensing process. And Congress could appropriate more money. Consumers have paid about $750 million a year since the 1980s to the federal government for the disposal of nuclear waste.

The U.S. Court of Appeals recently ordered the Department of Energy to stop collecting the payments, but the fund already totals about $30 billion. There is plenty of money to finish the application process if Congress decides to pay for the work.

If those NRC reports are finished and show the site to be safe, it would be a challenge to make a case to start a study of a different site for the national repository. Let's not forget $15 billion already had been spent on Yucca Mountain before Obama halted the work.

We're sure this is not the last time we'll see issues related to Yucca Mountain in court. But we have a large, long-term stake in seeing the completion of a national repository: 9,700 canisters of waste to be processed at Hanford's vitrification plant and 2,437 tons of irradiated Hanford fuel that will need an appropriate long-term storage solution.

With too little left in Yucca Mountain's budget to complete the review, the court's decision may seem like a small victory, but it is a major win for the rule of law. And for the Tri-Cities.