WASHINGTON — U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham has a simple lesson in consumer economics for the federal government: We paid for something we didn’t get, so please give us our money back.
Graham, a Republican from Seneca, is pushing a bill that would require the government to issue billions of dollars in rebates to electricity customers in South Carolina and 30 other states that use nuclear power.
The government has collected $32 billion in utility surcharges – including $1.3 billion from South Carolinians – since it designated Yucca Mountain in Nevada as the country’s central repository for nuclear waste in 1987.
President Barack Obama froze the project in 2009. Before Obama’s reversal, the government had spent $12 billion studying, designing and starting to build the vast underground vault 90 miles northwest of Las Vegas, leaving about $27 billion with accumulated interest in a special fund.
“No one should be required to pay for an empty hole in the Nevada desert,” Graham said. “The decision by the Obama administration to close Yucca Mountain was ill-advised and leaves our nation without a disposal plan for spent nuclear fuel or Cold War waste.”
Graham’s measure would require the government to refund three-quarters of the Yucca fund money to consumers. The remaining quarter would go to utilities to upgrade their waste-storage facilities at the country’s 65 commercial nuclear power plants.
South Carolina’s junior senator, Republican Jim DeMint of Greenville, is cosponsoring the legislation, along with GOP Sens. Saxby Chambliss of Georgia, John McCain of Arizona and Ron Johnson of Wisconsin.
Jen Stutsman, an Energy Department spokeswoman, said the government is developing an alternative waste site, based on recommendations provided in January by a blue-ribbon panel that Obama set up in 2010 after deep-sixing the Yucca project.
Republicans accused Obama of freezing the Yucca site to help Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, who narrowly was re-elected in 2010 in Nevada. The prospect of burying tens of thousands of tons of nuclear waste in the state is unpopular across the political spectrum.
“It was a political, not a scientific, decision,” Graham said of Obama’s move. “It is incumbent upon the administration to come up with a disposal plan for this real problem facing our nation.”
Obama’s task force recommended a “consent-based approach” to finding a waste repository, saying the fierce local opposition that emerged in Nevada makes such a project unfeasible in that state.
The 65 commercial nuclear plants hold 54,700 metric tons of waste produced by 104 generators in the 31 states.
The Savannah River Site in Aiken County, the Hanford complex in Washington state and a handful of other former nuclear weapons sites are storing an additional 12,800 tons of even more toxic spent fuel that was supposed to have started going to the Yucca repository in 1998.
South Carolina, Washington state, Aiken County and other government entities have sued the government for abandoning the Yucca project and reneging on requirements in federal law to transport and dispose of the waste.
The National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners last year filed a separate lawsuit asking courts to compel the federal government to suspend collection of the nuclear power surcharges until a new waste site is identified.
The U.S. Circuit for the District of Columbia Court of Appeals is scheduled to hear oral arguments next month in the state utility regulators’ fees case.
“We shouldn’t be paying for something we’re not getting,” said Rob Thormeyer, a spokesman for the regulators’ group. “There is no program, so what are we collecting money for?”
Salo Zelermyer, an energy consultant in Washington, was part of the Energy Department legal team that developed the final license application to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission for the Yucca repository.
Zelermyer said Graham’s measure has merit.
“The (Obama) administration has made quite a big deal out of investigating available alternatives to Yucca, yet it seems like that decision keeps getting pushed down the road,” Zelermyer said. “It’s fair for consumer groups or members of Congress to say, ‘While you’re considering this, why don’t you give us our money back?’ ”
The D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals last year provisionally rejected the suit by South Carolina and Washington state, saying it had been filed prematurely because the nuclear commission hadn’t ruled on Energy Secretary Steven Chu’s bid to withdraw the Yucca license application.
The two states filed new claims accusing the commission of unreasonable delay in making a decision. The D.C. appeals court is slated to hear arguments in that case May 2.