Court: Obama broke law with nuke delay

A federal court on Tuesday ruled that the Obama administration broke the law by delaying a decision on using the Yucca Mountain site in Nevada as a permanent nuclear waste dump.

In a 2-1 decision, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit said the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) violated a 1982 federal law by halting its consideration of the project. It ordered the NRC to deny or approve the Energy Department’s application to store nuclear waste at the site.

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The decision is a victory for Republicans, who have charged that President Obama’s 2010 decision to pull the plug on the reviews ran afoul of a law that outlines Yucca as the nation's sole waste storage site.

Writing for the majority, Judge Brett Kavanaugh said that the "policy disagreement with Congress's decision about nuclear waste storage is not a lawful ground for the Commission to decline to continue the congressionally mandated licensing process."

GOP leaders on the House Energy and Commerce Committee cheered the decision and said it would help move the review of Yucca forward.

"Our great system of checks and balances will ensure the law is carried out, and we will soon know once and for all whether Yucca Mountain is safe," committee Chairman Fred Upton (R-Mich.) and Energy and Environment Subcommittee Chairman John Shimkus (R-Ill.) said in a statement to The Hill.

The administration, including former NRC Chairman Gregory Jaczko, contended that the NRC didn’t have the funds to complete the Yucca review. House Republicans have voted to appropriate more funds to complete the process, but those spending levels were never adopted.

The court ruled that the NRC's argument regarding funding was invalid, and said federal law mandates that the administration rule on Yucca.

"Federal agencies may not ignore statutory mandates simply because Congress has not yet appropriated all of the money necessary to complete a project," Kavanaugh wrote.

The ruling could generate a challenge from the administration, which has endorsed the findings of an independent expert panel convened by Obama that said options other than Yucca should be explored for storing nuclear waste.

The NRC said it was reviewing the ruling, but spokesman David McIntyre told The Hill that it was "too soon to speculate on next steps."

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), an ardent foe of Yuccca, dismissed the ruling.

“We’ve had some problems with that court for years,” Reid said. “It really doesn’t mean much. … This, without being disrespectful to the court, means nothing," Reid said Tuesday at a National Clean Energy Summit he is hosting in Las Vegas, according to the Las Vegas Review Journal.

Nevada politicians have battle for years against the Yucca site, which they say was unfairly forced upon the state, and Reid has used his perch as Senate leader to fight it at every turn.

— This story was updated at 1:16 p.m.