WASHINGTON, Nov 19 (Reuters) - A U.S. appeals court ruled on Tuesday that the federal government can no longer require nuclear power plant operators to pay fees into a nuclear waste fund, in a victory for the utilities that challenged the fees.
The U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit said the fees could not be justified because the federal government's long-stalled plan to build a national waste facility at Yucca Mountain in Nevada has not come to fruition. The fund was to cover the cost of storing the waste.
The administration of President Barack Obama has said it does not intend to pursue the decades-old proposal to build the facility. The court noted that there is "no viable alternative" to the proposed site.
The court, in an opinion by Senior Judge Laurence Silberman, said the U.S. Department of Energy had failed to conduct the necessary assessment of whether the fees were justified.
Charles Gray, executive director of the National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners, said in a statement the ruling was ultimately a win for consumers.
"Thankfully, because of today's actions, nuclear power consumers will no longer have to pay for the government's mishandling of this program," he said.
Silberman said that until the government decides how nuclear waste will be deposited, "it seems quite unfair to force petitioners to pay fees for a hypothetical option."
The fund was expected be worth $28 billion by the end of 2012 and accrue $1.3 billion in interest each year, according to a prior ruling in the same litigation. The government collects about $750 million a year in fees, according to the ruling.
The case is NARUC v. U.S. Department of Energy, U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, No. 11-1066.
The Yucca Mountain facility, in discussion since the 1970s, called for the nation's nuclear waste to be buried inside the mountain in the Nevada desert about 100 miles northwest of Las Vegas. Congress chose the site in the 1980s because it is a secure location surrounded by federally owned land.
But funding has been dropped under the Obama administration, with opposition led by Democratic Senator Harry Reid of Nevada.
The ruling comes a day after the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, prompted by a separate ruling by the same court, directed its staff to complete work on a key safety evaluation related to the Nevada facility.
(Reporting by Lawrence Hurley, editing by Ros Krasny and Philip Barbara)