WISCASSET, Maine — In an ongoing legal dispute, a federal judge on Thursday ordered the U.S. government to pay Maine Yankee Atomic Power Co. $35.7 million for failing to remove 550 metric tons of spent nuclear fuel that has been sitting in Wiscasset since the nuclear plant stopped generating power in 1996.

The money, which will be returned to Maine ratepayers in the future, is meant to reimburse Maine Yankee for the costs incurred in storing the spent fuel between 2003 and 2008. The Department of Energy has 60 days to appeal U.S. Court of Federal Claims Judge James Merow’s decision.

It follows a similar award of $81.7 million the federal government was forced to pay Maine Yankee in February 2013 for storage costs incurred from 1998 to 2002.

The federal government is contractually obligated to dispose of the 550 metric tons of spent nuclear fuel that is stored in Wiscasset, but has failed to do so. Maine Yankee, along with Connecticut Yankee Atomic Power Co. and Yankee Atomic Electric Co., have been in court seeking to be reimbursed for the storage costs for 14 years.

Storing the spent fuel in Wiscasset costs Maine Yankee roughly $9 million a year, Eric Howes, a Maine Yankee spokesperson, told the Bangor Daily News in February.

Maine Yankee began generating power in 1972, and was decommissioned in 2005 after an eight-year process. It is owned by a consortium of utilities in New England, with Central Maine Power being the largest shareholder with a 38 percent stake. Bangor Hydro Electric Co. owns 7 percent, while Maine Public Service Co. owns 5 percent, according to Howes.

While the nuclear plant was operating, those utilities were entitled to a percent of generated electricity commensurate with their ownership stake. However, it also means the utilities have been responsible for that percent of the storage costs, Howes said. Those storage costs have been passed through to Maine ratepayers through their electricity rates.

The $35.7 million award to Maine Yankee will be disbursed to its owners, with $13.6 million going to CMP, $2.5 million to Bangor Hydro, and $1.8 million to Maine Public Service.

In its new Omnibus Energy law, the Maine Legislature laid out a plan for how the settlement funds from the federal government would be returned to ratepayers. The law states that 55 percent of the funds will go to the Efficiency Maine Trust “to be used by the trust for electric efficiency and conservation programs,” and 45 percent to reduce transmission and distribution rates “in a manner that provides maximum benefit to the economy of the state.”

Because of tax purposes, the disbursement of the earlier $81.7 million will happen over a three period beginning this year, according to Tom Welch, chairman of the Maine Public Utilities Commission.

In this latest settlement, the federal government also was ordered to award damages of $126.3 million to Connecticut Yankee and $73.3 to Yankee Atomic, according to a news release.

“We urge the federal government to fulfill its commitment to remove this material from our sites without further delay and to avoid filing a costly appeal that would only prolong the legal process and adversely affect ratepayers and taxpayers,” Wayne Norton, president of Yankee Atomic and Connecticut Yankee and chief nuclear officer of Maine Yankee, said in a statement released Thursday.

Whit Richardson

Whit Richardson is Business Editor at the Bangor Daily News. He blogs about Maine business, entrepreneurs and the economy.