NEW YORK -- Something could be missing from your next electric bill: a fee that electric customers have been paying for 31 years to fund a federal nuclear waste site that doesn't exist.
The Energy Department will stop charging the fee by court order on Friday. The amount is only a small percentage of most customers' bills, but it adds up to $750 million a year. The fund now holds $37 billion.
The money was collected to build a long-term disposal site for the highly radioactive nuclear waste generated by the nation's nuclear power plants that is, by law, the federal government's responsibility.
The site was supposed to have opened in 1998, but there is no such site nor even any tangible plans for one.
Don't expect a refund, however. The latest Energy Department strategy, laid out in a report last year, is to have a site designed by 2042 and built by 2048 using the money in the fund.
The fee, a penny for every 10 kilowatt-hours of electricity, is charged to nuclear operators and then passed on to customers, depending on how power is regulated and priced in each state. Based on the average amount of nuclear power produced across the U.S., a typical residential customer pays $2 a year into the fund.
This has long bothered state regulators. The National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners began suing the Department of Energy in 2010 to force DOE to stop collecting the fee.
"We never objected to paying the fee when there was a program," said Michigan utility commissioner Greg White, who has been fighting the fee for years. "But people shouldn't be paying for something that doesn't exist."
In a sharply worded opinion last fall, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia agreed, calling the DOE analysis of the fee collection "absolutely useless." The court also noted that there may be enough money in the fund to build a dump already: "The government apparently has no idea."
In 2002 Congress approved Nevada's Yucca Mountain as a site for a national nuclear waste dump and $9.5 billion was withdrawn from the fund to develop the project, according to the Government Accountability Office. But the project has been criticized as inadequate and flawed and is fiercely opposed by Nevadans. President Obama, fulfilling a campaign promise, cut funding for the program, withdrew its license application, and dismantled the office that was working on it.
"It's a victory for customers," said White of the end of the fee collection. "But it's bittersweet because we'd still rather see a (nuclear waste) site."