And finding a permanent solution for storing high-level radioactive waste across the country could take even longer.
U.S. Court of Federal Claims Senior Judge James F. Merow ruled in favor of three former Yankee nuclear power plants on Sept. 30, awarding each plant damages for storing high-level radioactive fuel rods the Department of Energy has failed to remove from the sites.
Yankee Rowe was awarded $32.9 million in damages, while Connecticut Yankee Atomic Power Co. received $34.9 million and Maine Yankee Atomic Power Co. received $75.8 million.
"While the court's decision will need to be reviewed and evaluated, the Yankee companies' initial reaction to the monetary award is very positive," said Michael Thomas, Yankee vice-president and chief financial officer in a prepared statement. "However, the ruling does not solve the problem of used nuclear fuel remaining at the plant sites, and the federal government is urged to remove the material promptly. We hope this ruling will spur the U.S. Department of Energy to begin fulfilling its obligation."
The three plants initially sued the Department of Energy in 1998, when it was supposed to remove the spent fuel rods. In 2003, the Court of Federal Claims ruled that the plants could seek damages.
Yankee officials announced that year that increased security and insurance costs in the wake of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks were pushing the initial $71 million in damages being sought in 1999 to over $231 million.
"The reason we did not receive the full amount, is that the judge awarded 'actual cost occurred' through 2001," Yankee spokeswoman Kelley Smith said in a phone interview Wednesday. "Our claims included projected costs for up to 2010, when the government was supposed to remove the fuel rods. For costs after 2001, we are being allowed to file additional claims."
She said the two other facilities received higher awards because the judge allowed all financial claims except those for "wet pool" storage. Yankee Rowe kept its rods in a reinforced concrete underground pool until 2003, when the last of the 553 rods were moved into so-called "dry-cask" storage containers.
"Yankee Rowe stored its fuel rods in for a longer period of time," Smith said. "The wet-pool storage claim was larger than the other two plants, so the award is a little longer than the others."
According to Smith, the award money will eventually be put into the Yankee decommissioning pool and used to offset the cost passed on to rate payers.
However, Yankee officials are not seeing the ruling as a means to an end. They want the plant's spent fuel rods removed from the site.
"As we say, we hope this spurs the federal government to take action sooner," Smith said. "Ultimately, the court proceedings are providing financial relief, but it doesn't relieve the responsibility of storing the high-level radioactive waste."
In 2003, federal officials were projecting 2010 as potential opening of Yucca Mountain in Nevada as a permanent storage site for fuel rods, but now that date has been pushed back until 2017. And there's no guarantee the Yucca site will be approved.
"All of the fuel rods (553) are still residing at the Rowe plant," Smith said. "The government has only identified Yucca Mountain as a fuel-storage site, yet they are now saying 2017, maybe, when it will possibly be operational."
She said the processes of opening Yucca Mountain have been marred by bureaucratic red tape over the years.
"This has been the only national location identified by the government for high-level waste," she said. "They have spent billions of dollars researching this site. Without any other option, the fuel rods must remain at Yankee Rowe unless the government comes up with a temporary location."
Yankee Rowe closed in 1992 after 31 years of operation. After months of public outcry over the safety of the facility's reactor vessel, its owners decided to close the plant rather then spend the money to prove the vessel wasn't cracked and the plant was safe.