The US Court of Federal Claims has ruled that the US Department of Energy violated a commitment that it had made when it failed to remove radioactive material from a civilian nuclear power plant.

The ruling relates to the 1982 Nuclear Waste Policy Act under which the US government obliged itself to take spent fuel from nuclear plants by January 1998. Delays in construction of a national spent fuel repository means the site will not be ready until 2010. A Court of Appeals ruling in 1997 confirmed the 1998 deadline.

The first test case that was brought before the court involved Yankee Atomic Power Co which owns a shut-down reactor in Rowe, Massachusetts. Until the DOE can take spent fuel rods from this plant, the company has to store them in cooling ponds at the facility. The company is suing the DOE for $70 million.

Yankee Atomic is one of 10 companies suing through the Court of Federal Claims. This represents a small fraction of likely claims. The nuclear industry could be entitled to damages of up to $50 billion.

Commonwealth Edison claimed to Illinois regulators recently that the failure of the DOE to take charge of spent fuel will add millions of dollars to the cost of decommissioning its nuclear power plants. The company claims that the failure will add at least $200 million to the bill for the decommissioning of the Zion plant, which is due to begin in 2014. Initial estimates put the cost of decommissioning at $936 million.

The utility bases its calculation of the additional cost on the price of storing spent fuel in dry-storage casks when the plant is decommissioned. Zion will require 93 such casks, each one costing $1 million.

The DOE has asked the Supreme Court to consider an appeal to the ruling which affirmed the January 1998 deadline. It argues that circumstances beyond its control have prevented it building a storage facility before the deadline expired.

The DOE had planned to store the spent fuel in a facility in Yucca Mountain, Nevada. However environmental and political debate delayed work on the project.