WISCASSET, Maine — The U.S. Court of Appeals on Friday affirmed an earlier court decision requiring the federal government to pay $81.69 million in damages to the Maine Yankee Atomic Power Co. for the U.S. Department of Energy’s failure to remove high-level radioactive waste from the decommissioned nuclear reactor site on Bailey Point in Wiscasset.

The unanimous decision from the court in Washington, D.C., also benefits two other decommissioned nuclear power plants in New England: Connecticut Yankee Atomic Power Co. in East Hampton, Conn., and Yankee Atomic Electric Co. in Rowe, Mass., which are joined with Maine Yankee under the corporate umbrella of The Yankee Companies. All told, the court ruling awards nearly $160 million to the three Yankee companies, with Connecticut Yankee slated to receive $39.66 million and Yankee Rowe $38.27 million in addition to Maine Yankee’s award.

“We are very pleased with the U.S. Court of Appeals decision, which is good news for the ratepayers of the three Yankee companies,” said Wayne Norton, chief nuclear officer of Maine Yankee and president of Connecticut Yankee. “We urge the federal government to fulfill its commitment to remove the spent fuel and greater-than-Class C waste from our sites without further delay and to stop pursuing a strategy of filing costly appeals that are not beneficial to ratepayers or taxpayers.”

The ruling is the latest in a series of court decisions — following the pattern of favorable judgments to the power companies followed by appeals by the federal government — stemming from litigation filed by Maine Yankee and its two sister companies in 1998. The initial lawsuit alleged that the federal government had breached contracts entered into with each company in 1983 under the Nuclear Waste Policy Act requiring the Department of Energy to remove by 1998 all high-level nuclear waste for long-term storage in a permanent repository.

Nuclear waste from around the country was supposed to be stored at Yucca Mountain in Nevada, but the repository has not opened because of opposition in Congress, most notably from Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, a Nevada Democrat. President Barack Obama stopped further work at Yucca Mountain in 2010.

In October 2006 the U.S. Court of Federal Claims awarded the Yankee companies roughly $143 million in damages. The federal government appealed the ruling. In August 2008, the U.S. Court of Appeals vacated the 2006 decision and sent the case back to the federal claims court.

In September 2010 the U.S. Court of Federal Claims issued another favorable decision, again awarding the three Yankee companies $143 million. The federal government appealed that decision in November 2010.

Friday’s ruling, according to a statement released today by the Yankee companies, “reflects a final judgment in a lawsuit originally filed over a decade ago — unless the federal government files yet another appeal.”

Currently, Maine Yankee’s 1,400 spent nuclear fuel rods — which will pose a threat to humans and the environment for at least 10,000 years — are stored in 60 airtight steel canisters encased in concrete that stand vertically atop a concrete pad on 12 acres in Wiscasset protected by a security fence and 24-hour surveillance. Another four “dry cask” containers encase irradiated steel removed from Maine Yankee’s reactor vessel during the nuclear plant’s decommissioning, completed in October 2005.

The cost of operating, maintaining and providing security for Maine Yankee’s radioactive waste is approximately $8 million per year.

Eric Howes, director of public and government affairs for Maine Yankee, said today the three Yankee companies have another pending lawsuit against the Department of Energy, on identical legal grounds, seeking a total of $264 million in damages.

That lawsuit, filed on Dec. 13, 2007, in the U.S. Court of Federal Claims, seeks $43 million for costs Maine Yankee incurred storing and safeguarding its high-level nuclear wastes in Wiscasset from Jan. 1, 2003, to Dec. 31, 2008. Connecticut Yankee seeks $135 million and Yankee Rowe $86 million in damages.

The trial on the second lawsuit was held in October 2011. Howes said a decision could be issued this year.

Howes said if the federal government chooses not to appeal Friday’s ruling, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission would decide exactly how the nearly $160 million awarded to the three Yankee companies would benefit ratepayers.

He said the award would come out of the federal Judgment Fund, funded by taxpayers, and created expressly to pay for final money judgments and awards against the United States.

“The Yankee Companies are working with local, state and national stakeholders in urging the [Obama] Administration and Congress to move forward this fiscal year on consolidated interim storage and the associated transportation planning,” Norton said in Tuesday’s statement about the federal court ruling.