(CN) - The Department of Energy owes $47.8 million to an Arkansas nuclear power plant for failing to pick up spent fuel rods and high-level nuclear waste, a federal judge ruled.
Under the Nuclear Waste Policy Act of 1982, Congress directed the Department of Energy (DOE) to contract with nuclear power plant operators on removing and storing waste products.
In exchange for two fees - a one-time fee based on energy generated before April 7, 1983, and a continuing fee based on energy produced after that date - the government committed to regularly remove spent fuel rods and radioactive waste from signatory plants. Waste removal was supposed to occur no later than January 31, 1998.
But delays in waste removal, including legal challenges to the Yucca Mountain Repository, prevented the DOE from meeting its obligations under the contract. The delays sparked numerous lawsuits across the country, as nuclear power companies attempt to recover costs incurred for temporary storage.
System Fuels and Entergy Arkansas, which operate the Arkansas Nuclear One power plant in Russellville, Ark., had entered into a waste-removal contract with the government in June 1983. Although the plant has paid almost $434 million for disposal services, the DOE has not performed a single pickup.
The Court of Federal Claims initially found the DOE liable for temporary storage costs. It used the industry-wide rate of waste collection to calculate a damages award totaling almost $49 million.
On appeal, however, the Federal Circuit determined that the court had used an incorrect acceptance rate. Remanding the case, the Federal Circuit directed the court to apply the rate identified in the DOE's 1987 Annual Capacity Report.
Though $34 million of damages were not contested under the 1987 rate, the government challenged the costs of panels used to cool recently used spent fuel rods, dry storage casks, a permanent system used to transfer spent fuel from wet storage to dry storage, and upgrades to a fuel transfer crane.
The government said Arkansas Nuclear One would have incurred these costs regardless of the government's breach.
Judge Charles Lettow rejected all but one of these claims on Tuesday.
System Fuels and Entergy Arkansas had to purchase 31 dry storage casks because of the breach, the court found. The fuel transport system and crane upgrades were necessary to transfer spent fuel into these casks.
Although the operators could have purchased lighter, less expensive casks that would not have necessitated crane upgrades, these would have blocked less radiation.
"[Arkansas Nuclear One] was by no means required to select the method of mitigation most favorable to the government at the cost of endangering its own employees," the opinion states.
Lettow disallowed the cost of replacing cooling panels, which plaintiffs argued would not have occurred had the government been able to accept its hotter spent fuel. He noted, however, that most damage to the panels occurred in the period immediately after spent fuel was discharged from the reactor. This could not have been prevented since the DOE was only obligated to collect fuel that had been cooling for five years.
"Because of the exponentially rapid rate of decay after removal of SNF [spent nuclear fuel] from the reactor, the diminution in [panel] degradation effected by transferring hotter SNF i.e., that which is slightly more than five years old, to DOE would not be too significant," Lettow wrote.
The court's final damages awarded totaled $47.7 million, approximately $1.3 million less than the original award.
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