In economics, one of the first lessons is that there’s no such thing as a free lunch. But what the federal government has been doing to the nuclear energy industry and the nuclear energy ratepayers is just about the closest one can get to a free lunch.

Charged with managing nuclear waste in the United States, the federal government has not collected one atom of spent nuclear fuel. Instead, the government has collected a whole lot of money. About $30 billion from U.S. nuclear-power ratepayers. Fed up, states governments are beginning to take matters into their own hands:

Several legislatures of states with nuclear power plants are considering stopping or reducing payments to the federal government for nuclear waste management until the proposed Yucca Mountain, Nev., repository opens or another solution to the waste problem emerges.

Maine lawmakers passed a resolution yesterday asking the federal government to immediately reduce fees paid by electricity customers for managing spent nuclear fuel. The resolution also urges the expedited establishment of two federally licensed interim storage facilities that would take possession of the waste and create an independent panel to assess the long-term prospects for handling military and civilian nuclear wastes.

Other states, which are obligated to pay much more than Maine, are considering even stronger measures to pressure the Obama administration and Congress. There are about 55,000 tons of civilian high-level waste in more than 120 locations in 39 states waiting for disposal.

Minnesota state Rep. Joe Atkins introduced legislation that would hold Minnesota waste-fee payments — about $13 million per year — in escrow until DOE “can show that a federal repository is operating and currently accepting such material.” Minnesota has paid about $659 million, including interest, into the fund.”

The most prudent approach, albeit challenging and comprehensive, would be to transfer nuclear waste management to the private sector. For a comprehensive analysis, see Heritage Research Fellow Jack Spencer’s A Free-Market Approach to Managing Used Nuclear Fuel.