On June 24, the US Supreme Court issued its opinion in Food Marketing Institute v. Argus Leader Media, expanding the scope of information protected under Exemption 4 of the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). FOIA establishes an expansive right for the public to access records from executive agencies to hold the government accountable. Limiting that broad right, FOIA includes several broadly worded exceptions whereby the release of certain information may not be compelled under FOIA. One such exemption, Exemption 4, states that “trade secrets and commercial or financial information obtained from a person” that are “privileged or confidential” are protected from mandatory public disclosure. The statute does not define “confidential,” so the question of what “commercial or financial information” is protected from disclosure has resulted in much litigation.

Justice Gorsuch’s majority opinion held that commercial or financial information that is both customarily and actually treated as private by its owner—and that is provided to the government under an assurance of privacy—is exempt from disclosure under FOIA. This holding has significant implications for all businesses that turn any information over to the US government. No longer may courts require proof that the information, if disclosed, would “cause substantial harm” to the company’s competitive position. Mere confidentiality, plus agency representations that the information will remain confidential, is enough.

In a rare legal challenge related to fees the NRC charges nuclear licensees for its services, the US Court of Federal Claims recently held that the costs of certain NRC services provided in connection with Confirmatory Orders (COs) are not recoverable via hourly bills to individual licensees. The court held that COs are essentially enforcement orders, and thus cannot be viewed as conveying an “individual benefit” to licensees.

The US Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit on July 11 affirmed the decision of the US District Court for the Southern District of Florida that dismissed a putative class action complaint seeking class certification for more than 1 million customers, injunctive relief, and disgorgement of rates collected under Florida’s Nuclear Cost Recovery System (NCRS).

The NCRS is a regulation promulgated by Florida’s Public Service Commission (PSC) after the passage of Florida’s 2006 Renewable Energy Technologies and Energy Efficiency Act (the Act). The NCRS allows a utility, subject to PSC approval, to preemptively charge its customers through an electricity rate increase for “costs incurred in the siting, design, licensing, and construction” of a nuclear project through its completion. The utility retains the funds collected under the NCRS even if the project is never completed. Here, plaintiffs sought to recover monies collected by two utilities under the NCRS for nuclear projects.

The US Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit on June 1 dismissed all of the claims brought by Texas seeking to compel a final decision on Yucca Mountain’s suitability as a nuclear waste repository. See Texas v. United States et al., Case No. 17-60191. The Fifth Circuit found that most of Texas’s claims were untimely, and the remaining, timely claims failed because they were outside of the court’s jurisdiction.

Texas petitioned the Fifth Circuit on March 14, 2017, arguing that several federal entities, including the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) and the US Department of Energy (DOE), had violated their obligations under the Nuclear Waste Policy Act of 1982 (Waste Act) by failing to accept waste by 1998; failing to complete the Yucca Mountain licensing project by 2012; and exploring “consent-based” siting as an alternative option for waste storage. Texas sought, generally, “equitable relief prohibiting [the Department of Energy] from conducting any other consent-based siting activity and ordering Respondents to finish the Yucca licensure proceedings.” After filing its petition, Texas moved for declaratory and injunctive relief, to which Nevada responded with a motion to dismiss.

The US Department of Justice (DOJ) and the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) filed a joint brief on May 29 in the US Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit, stating that Illinois’ zero emission credit (ZEC) program for eligible nuclear plants in Illinois is not preempted by the Federal Power Act (FPA). Because the panel in a substantially similar case pending in the Second Circuit has indicated that it would review the government’s filing in the Seventh Circuit case, the views of FERC and DOJ could be critical as this issue plays out in the federal court system.

The Illinois legislature passed a law in 2016 requiring utilities to purchase ZECs at administratively set prices from nuclear plants in the state. Generators that compete with the ZEC-receiving nuclear plants challenged the law, arguing that the ZEC program is preempted by the FPA. The district court upheld the program, and the generators appealed the decision to the Seventh Circuit. FERC did not take a position in the trial court but has now done so after the Seventh Circuit invited the US government to file a brief.