State regulators and the Office of Consumer Counsel recently issued a "good news" press release. Connecticut electric ratepayers, or at least most of them, will see their monthly bills collectively reduced by $75 million, or about $10 a year for your average residential customer.
But the reason for this windfall, such that it is, is not good news. It results from failed federal policy that could cost taxpayers hundreds of billions of dollars.
In 1982 Congress passed and President Reagan signed the Nuclear Waste Policy Act of 1982. The act required that by 1998 the U.S. Department of Energy start removing spent nuclear fuel and other highly radioactive waste from the nation's nuclear power plants.
When 1998 arrived there was no place for DOE to take the material. The department had begun developing plans in 1978 to create a permanent storage facility at Yucca Mountain in Nevada, but by 1998 the plan faced litigation and regulatory debate. Finally, in 2002, President George W. Bush signed a resolution to move the process forward. In 2006 DOE announced Yucca would begin accepting waste in 2017.
But soon after his election President Barack Obama, fulfilling a campaign promise, abandoned the project. It was pure politics. Sen. Harry Reid, Senate majority leader, is from Nevada, where the plan faced major opposition.
This brings us back to the $75 million Connecticut ratepayers will divvy up. To pay for a national waste storage program, the government had long been assessing a fee on electric bills to pay for it. When DOE did not fulfill its obligation to take the stuff, utilities began suing, and winning.
The $75 million settlement is the Connecticut reimbursement share of money spent to continue storing radioactive spent nuclear fuel at the sites of the former "Yankee" reactors - Connecticut Yankee in Haddam and Maine Yankee in Wiscasset, Maine, which both closed in 1996, and Yankee Atomic in Rowe, Mass., which closed in 1992. The total settlement was about $160 million. Customers of Connecticut Light & Power and United Illuminating, investors in the Yankee plants, will see the modest savings.
But that is only Phase I of the litigation, covering costs so far. The bill to DOE - in other words taxpayers - will keep running up until there is a federal storage facility. In 2011 a federal court awarded Dominion, operators of Millstone nuclear station, $64 million for storage costs accrued at the Waterford plants through June 30 of that year. There was no passing through of those savings because, as an operating plant, Millstone had assumed those costs.
DOE estimates that paying out all these damage awards - there are about 80 lawsuits - will amount to $20.8 billion if the federal government begins accepting the spent fuel by 2020, which appears unlikely. Some industry observers say that estimate is low. DOE expects liabilities to increase by hundreds of millions of dollars annually after 2020.
This was once actually a good plan. After all the money spent in preparing Yucca, there was still $27 billion left in the federal storage fund, created using those surcharges on electric bills. The intent of setting the money aside was to "provide a sure source of funds to carry out the programs" and "eliminate … annual budgetary perbutations" - meaning to make sure DOE would not have to fight every year for the money needed to deal with nuclear waste storage.
But we all know what happens in Washington when money is left lying around - it is spent. In its 2012 report the Blue Ribbon Commission on America's Nuclear Future reported the waste fund is "effectively inaccessible" for the purpose Congress created it.
So there is no plan for dealing with the waste, no money to pay for it, and taxpayers are getting soaked because the federal government failed to meet its obligations. But at least some electric customers will save $10 a year.
Paul Choiniere is the editorial page editor.