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DOE to Breach 16-Year Legal Obligation to Manage Used Nuclear Fuel

WASHINGTON—At midnight tomorrow, the old axiom, "you get what you pay for," will lose a ring of truth.

That's when the U.S. Department of Energy will officially break its 16-year-old legal obligation to manage the used nuclear fuel from the nation's commercial nuclear power plants that supply 20 percent of America's electricity. In doing so, the Energy Department will subject United States' taxpayers to as much as $56 billion in liabilities resulting from the agency's failure to begin moving used fuel.

The 1998 deadline was established by Congress as part of the Nuclear Waste Policy Act of 1982. Every month since 1983, ratepayers of nuclear-generated electricity have paid one-tenth of a cent per kilowatt-hour into the Nuclear Waste Fund to pay for a disposal facility and transportation of fuel from the 83 existing commercial and defense sites located in 41 states beginning Jan. 31, 1998. To date, approximately $14 billion has been collected from consumers, but DOE now says that a disposal facility will not be operational until 2010, at the earliest.

"American taxpayers and electricity consumers have a right to be outraged by the federal government's failure to perform," said Joe F. Colvin, president and chief executive officer of the Nuclear Energy Institute. "If a consumer paid $10,000 to put a new roof on his or her house, and after 16 years the contractor had completed only a fraction of the work, the consumer would never be expected to continue to pay."

As recently as Nov. 14, 1997, the U.S. Court of Appeals reaffirmed the Energy Department's legal obligation and rejected efforts by DOE to skirt its liability with claims that it faced an "unavoidable delay" in disposing of used nuclear fuel. "We preclude DOE from concluding that its delay is unavoidable on the ground that it has not yet prepared a permanent repository or that it has no authority to provide storage in the interim," the court said.

Said Colvin, "DOE continues to devote time and resources to making excuses for its non-performance rather than develop solutions for which electricity consumers have already committed $14 billion. The consequences of DOE's failure to meet its obligation are severe and are mounting with each passing day."

By the end of this year, 27 nuclear power plants will have exhausted existing on-site storage space for used nuclear fuel; 80 reactors will run out of on-site storage space by 2010, the earliest point at which DOE says a permanent facility will be operating.

In December 1997, Nuclear Fuel , a McGraw-Hill publication, reported that in addition to defaulting on its statutory obligation to take used fuel, the Energy Department also intends to pay damages to utilities with moneys that these same utilities and their ratepayers have paid into the Nuclear Waste Fund for fuel disposal services.

"The Energy Department's handling of this matter is inexcusable," Colvin said. "In spite of the mammoth liabilities that taxpayers will incur, the Energy Department is failing to do its job."

This makes it imperative that Congress pass the Nuclear Waste Policy Act of 1997 (H.R. 1270/S.104), which has cleared both houses of Congress with strong bipartisan support, most recently by a vote of 307-120 in the U.S. House of Representatives. The legislation includes provisions that would establish a centralized interim storage facility to begin operation around 2002-2003. However, President Clinton continues to threaten to veto the legislation.

"Now is the time for leadership to resolve this issue. The White House should drop its veto threat and sign the legislation that's come out of Congress with strong bipartisan support," said Colvin. "Nuclear energy is the nation's second-largest source of electricity. At a time when nuclear energy's clean air benefits increasingly are being recognized to help reduce greenhouse gas emissions, it is critical that the Administration fulfill its legal obligation."


The Nuclear Energy Institute is the nuclear energy industry’s policy organization. This news release and additional information about nuclear energy are available on NEI’s Internet site at