Litigation — Yucca Mountain Lawsuits
Current Press News
Overview/Background: Over the past decade, the State of Nevada has filed multiple lawsuits against the federal government regarding the Yucca Mountain Project. Most of these lawsuits were consolidated into four cases (see links below) that were heard at the District of Columbia Court of Appeals on January 14, 2004. The judges dismissed most of Nevada's claims, but they did rule in favor of the State's complaint against radiation standards for the nuclear waste repository. The ruling poses a significant setback for the project.
The Court's Ruling:
On July 9, 2004, the Court of Appeals ruled on Nevada's Yucca Mountain Lawsuits. The judges dismissed almost all of the State's claims except a key challenge against the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). The Court ruled that the EPA's 10,000-year safety standard on radiation containment at the site was arbitrary and inconsistent with the congressionally-mandated recommendations of the National Academy of Sciences. The Court also struck down the Nuclear Regulatory Commission's licensing standards insofar as they include a 10,000 year compliance limit. (Read the Court's decision).
The National Academy of Sciences said the radiation safety standard should be set at a higher limit, when the waste would be at its peak radiation levels - at least 300,000 years from the time the waste is sent to Yucca. The EPA was required by law to base its rule on NAS' recommendation, but chose to set the standard at 10,000 years instead.
State officials believe the ruling will significantly delay or even scrap the project. State Attorney General Brian Sandoval claimed a sound victory for Nevada, saying that the EPA would have to form a new rule with a tougher standard - a standard the Energy Department would not be able to meet due to Yucca Mountain's inferior geology. This "is a fatal blow to the repository," Sandoval said. (Read the Office of the Attorney General's Press Release).
DOE itself has expressed doubts in the past about being able to meet a longer time limit. As quoted by the Court, former project director Lake Barrett wrote in 1999 that a safety standard significantly longer than 10,000 years would be "unworkable and probably unimplementable."
Nonetheless, DOE remains positive about the Court of Appeal's ruling. "I am pleased with today's decisions handed down by the Court," said Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham in a July 9 statement. "The Court dismissed all challenges to the site selection of Yucca Mountain." As for the 10,000 year safety standard, Abraham said, "DOE will be working with the EPA and Congress to determine appropriate steps to address this issue."
The rest of Nevada's challenges, including the Constitutional case claiming Nevada's sovereign rights as a state were being violated, and the Recommendations case claiming DOE and President Bush acted illegally in recommending Yucca Mountain, were dismissed by the judges.
However, the last pages of the court's ruling contained a concession giving Nevada the power to challenge DOE's Environmental Impact Statement for Yucca Mountain in any DOE or Nuclear Regulatory Commission proceeding. "This means issues such as DOE's rejection of the "no-action" alternative (continued on-site storage), its transportation plan, and its violation of Nevada's hazardous waste laws are now fully addressable in courts of law," said Attorney General Sandoval. The ruling came 7 months after a 3 ½ hour hearing in D.C.
Read The Details — The Major Yucca Mountain Lawsuits and the Court Hearing
In addition to the major Yucca Mountain lawsuits , the State of Nevada has filed other claims against the Department of Energy (DOE) regarding oversight funding, the public Yucca Mountain information database, and DOE's plan to build a rail line for waste shipment in Southern Nevada. The Energy Department, for its part, has been fighting the State in court for water rights at Yucca Mountain. See links below for more details.
More About Yucca Mountain Litagation
On September 3, 2004, the U.S. Court of Appeals in Washington, D.C. denied an appeal to the Nuclear Energy Institute (NEI). The Nuclear Energy Industry has since issued notice of their intent to appeal to the Supreme Court.
The NEI, a lobbying group for nuclear energy industries, appealed the court's July ruling that struck down a 10,000 year radiation containment standard for the proposed waste repository at Yucca Mountain. After the appeal failed, the NEI filed a motion with the court asking it to extend the stay on the radiation ruling pending outcome of the Supreme Court appeal.
What's next? The NEI has until November 30 to file a petition for writ of certiorari asking the Supreme Court to accept the case. If the appeal fails, the EPA will have to promulgate a new safety rule. The only other option would be for Congress to pass legislation allowing the 10,000 year standard.
On September 8, 2004, the State filed suit against DOE over the proposed Caliente Rail Line in Southern Nevada. The State Attorney General says DOE did not follow federal environmental policy and ignored important railroad regulators while making the decision.
On August 31, 2004, a Nuclear Regulatory Commission Board ruled in favor of the State of Nevada, finding the Yucca Mountain information database to be insufficient and incomplete. The Department of Energy must now work to improve the internet database, called the Licensing Support Network (LSN). LSN must be certified by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission in order for licensing proceedings to move forward. The ruling could cause a significant delay in the Yucca Mountain project's schedule; however, DOE has appealed the ruling. For more, see our LSN Certification page.
Nevada's funding lawsuit, which involves State access to federally-granted oversight money for the project, is set to be heard in federal court on January 10, 2005.