RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
And the federal government promised three decades ago to find a place to bury nuclear waste from power plants. It hasn't. So the waste is piling up at power plants around the country. And that's got people concerned about safety. As NPR's Christopher Joyce reports, a recent court decision may now force the government into action.
CHRISTOPHER JOYCE, BYLINE: One thing people can agree on about nuclear energy is that used fuel from power plants, highly radioactive, needs to be disposed of forever. Easier said than done. The government spent billions digging a giant hole for waste at Yucca Mountain in Nevada. Then President Obama canceled that. So now some 70,000 tons of spent fuel sits mostly at power plants. Where it goes next nobody knows.
Now a federal appeals court in Washington, D.C. has told the government this solution may not be safe. Geoffrey Fettus with the Natural Resources Defense Council helped win the case.
GEOFFREY FETTUS: They're going to have to look at the environmental impacts of long-term storage on-site, potential disposal options, as well as the potential that they never even get long-term disposal option.
JOYCE: The government's Nuclear Regulatory Commission has argued that the waste is OK where it is, even for 60 years after a power plant closes. The NRC also says it will keep its promise to find a permanent waste dump at some point. But the appeals court says prove it.
Nuclear critics like Fettus are worried about the spent fuel that sits in big water-filled pools at power plants. The water keeps the radioactive fuel from overheating and possibly burning.
FETTUS: We've been fighting for years with the NRC, urging them to require moving fuel from the pools as soon as it's able. The NRC has thus far has refused to do this.
JOYCE: Utilities have moved fuel out of pools into dry casks of steel and concrete. These are widely viewed as safer than pools. But most waste is still in pools, many of which are packed to the legal limit. And the waste just keeps coming.
Albert Machiels is a waste expert at the utility industry's Electric Power Research Institute. He says the public didn't expect local power plants to become de facto dumps.
ALBERT MACHIELS: It has a really large impact on the local communities. They never bought into the idea that the spent fuel was going to stay essentially beyond the lifetime of the power plant and it doesn't sell very well.
JOYCE: Moreover, the government has been charging utilities and their customers a fee to pay for a permanent waste dump. David Wright, head of the National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners, says it's a rip-off.
DAVID WRIGHT: They have chosen not to do anything. The federal government has our money; we have their waste.
JOYCE: Wright says the court ruling in Washington is one development where environmentalists and utilities can agree.
WRIGHT: The fact that we're finally getting some movement and recognition in the court system, is movement - and I think it's a positive development.
JOYCE: The appeals court says NRC must do an environmental assessment of all that waste. It did not, however, set a due date.
Christopher Joyce, NPR News.
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