For years the nuclear power industry, which could serve as a climate neutral bridge to a more carbon neutral energy policy, has been hampered by the high cost of electricity production and difficulty in securing new licenses and license renewals. A not insignificant contributor to the cost of nuclear power, and one of the arguments raised against relicensing of older nuclear power plants, has been the necessity for the operators of nuclear power plants to store spent nuclear fuel onsite for an indefinite period of time. This was not supposed to be the case. Years ago Congress passed and the President signed into the law the Nuclear Waste Policy Act, which mandated the Department of Energy to develop a permanent repository for spent reactor fuel.
On August 13, a panel of the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, in In Re Aiken County issued a rare order, a writ of mandamus, compelling the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to resume the licensing proceeding on the Department of Energy’s application for a permit to construct a permanent repository for nuclear waste at Yucca Mountain in Nevada. That process was to have been completed in June of 2011 under the Nuclear Waste Policy Act, but the DOE, acting on the President’s direct order, tried to withdraw its license application in 2010 and, though the NRC Licensing Board rejected DOE’s efforts, the Chairman of the NRC, also acting at the President’s request, shut the process down anyway.
The case was brought by two states, two counties, three individuals residing near current temporary nuclear waste storage sites, and the association of regulatory commissioners. The Yucca Mountain project has been controversial for years, having been opposed by environmentalists and local politicians in Nevada. DOE’s failure to find a central long-term repository for nuclear waste has forced the nuclear power industry to continue to store spent nuclear fuel in on-site casks or water filled pools, creating what is perceived by critics as enhanced risk of release of radionuclides to the environment. The decision contains a detailed, lengthy and fascinating discussion of the Executive Branch’s authority to exercise prosecutorial discretion and how that discretion is far different than its discretion to ignore clear statutory mandates.
The majority of the panel held that the Executive Branch, including the President (and by extension executive and independent agencies like the NRC), has no authority to disregard congressional mandates based on policy disagreements with the law in question. The panel concluded that the Nuclear Waste Policy Act and Congressional funding of the NRC’s permit review process created a clear mandate to the NRC to make a decision on the permit application pending since 2011. Finding that the NRC is “simply flouting the law, ” and has “no current intention of complying with the law,” the majority opinion by Judge Kavenaugh (joined by Judge Randolph), flatly rejected the defenses offered by the NRC. The court rejected the argument that Congress had appropriated insufficient funds to complete the project, finding that annual congressional appropriations never provide enough money to finish a multi year project, and that over $11 million exists to continue it. The court also rejected the argument that the NRC’s decision to ignore the law was justified because Congress might not provide funding in the future, concluding that allowing an agency to ignore a clear mandate would “gravely upset the balance of powers between the Branches and represent a major unwarranted expansion of the Executive’s power at the expense of Congress.”
The court also rejected the argument that the failure of Congress to provide future appropriations for the Yucca project demonstrates congressional intent to shut down the process. The Court opined that the measure of congressional intent is in the laws it passes, not what it debates, and that repeal by implication is inappropriate where previously appropriated funds are not taken back and remain available to advance the project. The court accordingly concluded that there is “no justification” for ignoring the clear statutory mandate. Finally, the court rejected the suggestion that an agency’s policy dispute with Congress’s decision is “not a lawful ground” for the NRC or the President to decline to follow the law.
In a dissent, Chief Judge Garland argued that all the NRC did was suspend the proceeding because there were not “sufficient funds to finish the licensing process and that the court should defer to the agency on this judgment, and therefore mandamus should be denied. The majority rejected this, noting that the NRC’s continued repeated and unjustified disregard for the law despite the repeated warnings given by the court rendered mandamus appropriate.
The D.C. Circuit mandamus order will in all likelihood be appealed, and it is certain that the Yucca Mountain project will remain the subject of intense controversy. The stakes for the nuclear energy industry in having the spent fuel storage problem resolved are large. Stay tuned.