A bill introduced by Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) on Monday could force the government to provide rebates for $35.8 billion collected in the Nuclear Waste Trust Fund since 1983 to help build and operate the permanent federal nuclear waste repository at Yucca Mountain in Nevada.

According to the Nuclear Energy Institute, customers have been paying a tenth of a cent per kilowatt-hour of power generated at a nuclear power plant plus interest since 1983. Of the $35.8 billion (estimated at the start of 2011, see state by state breakdown), $10.8 billion has already been spent for studying, designing, and preliminary construction of the Yucca Mountain repository, which had been expected to begin operations in 2017.

In a November special report, POWER observed that nuclear utilities had paid $31 billion into the Nuclear Waste Trust Fund from 1983 through the end of FY2009. Minus the $7.3 billion spent on developing Yucca Mountain, that left a $23.6 billion (virtual) balance.

In 2009, however, the Department of Energy withdrew its application for Yucca Mountain filed just a year before with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission in 2008, and choked off all funding to the project. Energy Secretary Steven Chu in January 2010 appointed a 15-member Blue Ribbon Commission to recommend alternative long-term solutions for managing and disposing of the nation’s spent nuclear fuel waste.

The commission in January this year released its report. One of its key recommendations was that the U.S. government should immediately commence development of at least one geologic disposal facility and at least one consolidated storage facility, as well as efforts to prepare for the eventual large-scale transport of spent nuclear fuel and high-level waste from current storage sites to those facilities.

“No one should be required to pay for an empty hole in the Nevada desert,” said Graham. “The decision by the Obama Administration to close Yucca Mountain was ill-advised and leaves our nation without a disposal plan for spent nuclear fuel or Cold War waste. It was a political, not scientific, decision. It is incumbent on the Administration to come up with a disposal plan for this real problem facing our nation.”

The Nuclear Waste Fund Relief and Rebate Act
introduced by Graham on Monday would rebate the funds back to electric utilities and consumers. About 75% of the amount rebated to utilities would be returned to their customers, and the remaining portion will be used to make upgrades to on-site storage facilities.

Among major provisions in Graham’s bill are that within 30 days of the law’s passage, the president “must certify that Yucca Mountain remains the preferred choice to serve as the federal repository for spent nuclear fuel and defense-related nuclear waste.” Graham said the DOE had spent “billions of dollars and decades” studying the suitability of Yucca Mountain as the nation’s repository for spent nuclear fuel and defense waste. “Consistently, the science has borne out that Yucca Mountain is the best site to dispose of nuclear waste.”

If the president failed to make that certification, all funds in the trust fund would be rebated back to utilities, it says. The legislation also includes waste confidence language that allows for the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to continue to safeguard waste sites and license nuclear reactors in the event the presidential certification is not made, Graham said.

“Our nation needs real options as a result of the uncertainty created by the Obama Administration’s change in policy,” said Graham. “I will push this legislation forward and hope to have the full Senate on-the-record on this important issue.”

Co-sponsors of The Nuclear Waste Fund Relief and Rebate Act include Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.), John McCain (R-Ariz.), Saxby Chambliss (R-Ga.), and Ron Johnson (R-Wis.).

Sources: POWERnews, POWER, NEI, Sen. Graham