“It is no overstatement to say that our constitutional system of separation of powers would be significantly altered if we were to allow executive and independent agencies to disregard federal law in the manner asserted in this case by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission,” Kavanaugh wrote. “The commission is simply defying a law enacted by Congress … without any legal basis.”
A spokesman for the NRC said Tuesday the agency was reviewing the decision. He declined further comment.
Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz said the Energy Department was not a party to the lawsuit, but he characterized the Yucca Mountain project as “a complete stalemate.” He said he saw no evidence of that changing.
“Currently we do not have funding,” he told reporters at a clean energy conference Tuesday in Las Vegas.
The court’s decision was hailed by supporters of the Yucca site, which has been the focus of a dispute that stretches back more than three decades. The government has spent an estimated $15 billion on the site but has never completed it. No waste is stored there.
“This decision reaffirms a fundamental truth: The president is not above the law,” said South Carolina Attorney General Alan Wilson. The Obama administration “cannot pick and choose which laws to follow and which to ignore,” Wilson said.
South Carolina and Washington state were among several parties to a lawsuit seeking to force the NRC to rule on the Yucca Mountain application. The states both have large nuclear waste sites that would use the Yucca repository.
The Obama administration, under pressure from Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada, abandoned the project early in the president’s first term. In 2011, the NRC allowed the shutdown to stand, citing “budgetary limitations” imposed by Congress. The NRC is an independent agency that oversees commercial nuclear operations.
Reid, a Democrat, called the appeals court decision “fairly meaningless,” noting that Congress has nearly eliminated funding for Yucca and is unlikely to restore it.
“This isn’t even a bump in the road,” Reid said. “This, without being disrespectful to the court, means nothing.”
Even if the Obama administration moves forward on the application, “there’s no money” for Yucca Mountain, Reid said. “We’ve cut out funding for many years now and there’s none in our budget to start it.”
Republican Reps. Fred Upton of Michigan and John Shimkus of Illinois called the court ruling a “significant milestone” that made clear the Obama administration acted prematurely in terminating Yucca Mountain. Upton chairs the House Energy and Commerce Committee, while Shimkus heads a subcommittee on environment and the economy.