In the Spotlight

Tools
News & Features
Judge's Order Leaves NSP Holding Nuke Waste
By Kathryn Herzog
April 8,1999
Click for audio RealAudio 3.0


A federal judge has blocked Northern States Power Company in a lawsuit seeking financial damages from the federal government, for not taking the utility's nuclear waste. NSP says the government was legally obligated to remove the waste from its Prairie Island nuclear power plant by January 1998.

THE 1982 NUCLEAR WASTE POLICY ACT OBLIGATES the federal government to accept radioactive nuclear waste from commercial nuclear-power plants across the country. Since the law was passed, the government has searched for possible storage facilities including Yucca Mountain in Nevada. The site has been plagued by possible safety and environmental hazards, and remains controversial. The judge ruled that NSP must first try to settle its disputes with the Department of Energy before taking the matter to court.

NSP lawyer Michael Connelly says the company is disappointed with the decision and plans to appeal. He says NSP customers have paid more than $260 billion toward a waste repository that doesn't exist, and they deserve compensation.

Connelly: Certainly it's a complex project to develop a permanent repository for spent nuclear fuel and we acknowledge that. Our response to that, however, is that their obligation doesn't say develop a repository by 1998, it says accept the spent nuclear fuel.
Connelly says if Yucca Mountain is not ready for permanent storage of nuclear waste, the government should develop a temporary site next to Yucca Mountain until the site is complete.

10 nuclear utilities - including NSP - have filed lawsuits against the federal government for civil damages. Observers say the judge's decision on NSP sets back all those lawsuits and will deter other utilities from filing in the future.

Alka Peirsma is an energy-policy analyst with Public Citizens' Critical Mass Energy Project in Washington . He says the timing of the judge's decision is a major setback for the nuclear industry as Congress debates action on laws governing the transportation of nuclear waste. The decision, he says, forces NSP and the DOE to settle their contract disputes outside of the courts.
Peirsma: What the Congress will say is, what they have said is, this is an issue to be decided by the courts. Now that the courts have said that this is an issue to be decided by the contractual process, that these contracts have been around for 18 years now, and those contracts will suffice in deciding these issues. So there's no reason to pass legislation today to essentially muck-up the process.
Piersma says the legislation is already on shaky ground and the court's decision may be the final blow. The bill, lacks support in the Senate and has been repeatedly vetoed by President Clinton. It allows the shipment of nuclear waste through 43 states, past more than 15 million Americans over 30 years. In the last 10 years there have been more than 100,000 rail accidents involving toxic material. Piersma says the nuclear industry has had a difficult time convincing legislators the waste would reach its destination safely.

NSP will now try to work with Department of Energy to resolve the issue. State law currently forces NSP to pay $500,000 per cask per year that the waste remains on Prairie Island.

NSP currently has nine casks filled, with permission to fill up to 17. If the federal government does not take the waste, NSP says it will be forced to shut down its reactors due to lack of storage space in 2007 and 2008.