U.S. Energy Department Defends Nuclear-Waste Fee to Court

The U.S. Energy Department defended its assessment of the $750 million it collects annually from the nuclear-energy industry for waste disposal even as plans for a permanent repository remain uncertain.

“Neither insufficient nor excess revenues are being collected in order to recover the costs incurred by the federal government,” Energy Secretary Steven Chu said in his annual assessment of the fee, dated Jan. 16.

The agency today submitted the assessment to the U.S. Court of Appeals in Washington, which on June 1 said the agency’s 2010 determination justifying the fee was “legally defective.” It directed the department to re-evaluate whether it collects too little or too much revenue from utilities to dispose of nuclear waste.

“The Energy Department has conducted a rigorous review of the adequacy of the Nuclear Waste Fund fee, as directed by the D.C. Circuit, and has determined not to propose an adjustment to the fee at this time,” agency spokeswoman Niketa Kumar said in an e-mailed statement.

The Nuclear Energy Institute, a Washington-based industry group whose members include Exelon Corp. of Chicago and Southern Co. of Atlanta, has protested having to pay the fee without a disposal site being made available.

President Barack Obama’s administration in 2010 ended funding for Yucca Mountain, a proposed repository about 100 miles (161 kilometers) northwest of Las Vegas, leaving plans for a permanent disposal site uncertain.

Interim Storage

The Energy Department said its endorsement of a plan to develop interim storage facilities before a permanent geologic repository is found -- as recommended by a commission on waste Obama set up after pulling the plug on Yucca -- shows the U.S. is committed to taking the waste from utilities. That justifies the continuation of the fee, according to the department.

The waste fee is tied to the department’s obligation to take and dispose of nuclear waste, “not the Yucca Mountain project,” the department said in the filing.

President Barack Obama’s administration will work with Congress to implement a strategy for nuclear-waste storage, the agency said in its report.

The National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners, which opposes collection of the fee, said it is still reviewing the department’s filing with the court.

“At first blush, we find it difficult to understand how the department can justify charging nuclear utilities and their consumers for a program they effectively concede does not exist,” Rob Thormeyer, a spokesman for the Washington-based industry group, said in an e-mailed statement.

The case is National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners v. U.S. Department of Energy, 11-1066, U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia (Washington).

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