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Yucca Mountain waste site: Court orders nuclear agency back to work (+video)

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"Existing law requires the NRC to determine whether the facility and location is safe for storing spent-nuclear fuel," he added. "Even if it does, the fate of Yucca Mountain remains uncertain."

The issue has a long, contentious history – from the early days of the site selection process through President George W. Bush's decision in 2002 to sign a joint resolution of Congress picking Yucca Mountain as the location for storing high-level radioactive waste.

The tide turned with President Obama's election.

After Mr. Obama took office in 2009, he slashed funds for the program and appointed a commission to revisit the issue of storing highly radioactive spent fuel. One of his key allies in Congress has been Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D) of Nevada, who has long opposed the project in his home state. Funding prospects for Yucca Mountain, especially in the Democrat-controlled Senate, continue to appear bleak, at best.

But the Energy Department filed its license application for Yucca Mountain in 2008. That started the play clock ticking on a 2011 deadline for completing the review process and giving the application a thumbs up or thumbs down. The three-year time frame was established by Congress under amendments to the Nuclear Waste Policy Act of 1982.

The act establishes the federal government's responsibility to site and build a nuclear waste repository. Nuclear utilities were responsible for paying disposal costs. The nuclear industry estimates that utilities, and ultimately rate-payers, have contributed $35 billion to the nuclear waste fund since then, with no return on the investment.

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