A political stalemate has cost billions — and the tab could reach $20 billion — as the United States reneges daily on long-standing contracts to haul away energy companies' nuclear waste, a service they have paid for for decades.

Nuclear waste suits filed by energy companies have had a dramatic effect on the total payouts that occur when contractors or citizens successfully argue in court that a federal agency has erred or violated the law.

The federal government paid by far the most on record last year to parties who sued it, at $2.7 billion, and is on pace to match or exceed that total this year, a Washington Examiner analysis of Treasury Department records found.

The Energy Department paid out $1 billion in legal settlements last year, and has been forced to pay companies and others more than any other agency in three out of the last four years.

The government's legal position was weakened Tuesday when a federal appellate court said — in stark terms — that the Nuclear Regulatory Commission "is simply flouting the law" and that "the president may not decline to follow a statutory mandate or prohibition simply because of policy objections."

It ordered the Obama administration to stop stalling its review of a nuclear-waste facility at Nevada's Yucca Mountain. The holdup is that decades after companies began paying for the government to haul their waste there, the government has taken steps to kill the site entirely and has yet to choose an an alternate site to house it.

A federal judge awarded $90 million to Exelon Generation Company when it successfully argued that "the government breached the standard contracts by failing to remove" nuclear waste that the company had paid it to dispose of "by the contractual deadline. In fact, the government has declared that it will not begin to attempt to comply with its obligations until 2010 at the earliest, 12 years after the deadline."

That was followed by a spate of suits, both settled and still pending.

In an October 2011 Department of Energy memo, the government estimated that its "liability in connection with the government's partial breach of the 'standard contracts' that it executed pursuant to the Nuclear Waste Policy Act of 1982" was an estimated $19.1 billion.

The government has been steadily and quietly making the payments for the last several years, but the Yucca issue is coming to a head.

In recent weeks, Secretary of Energy Ernest Moniz was grilled by lawmakers on where the United States intends to store its nuclear waste, given that President Obama has joined the state of Nevada in opposing it as a site.

"We have a law that clearly designates where the storage is," Sen. Jim Risch, R-Idaho, told Moniz. "Whether we agree with the law or not, when the law's passed, that's pretty much the way it is."

Rep. John Shimkus, R-Ill., said that there are few alternatives, and the failure to move on Yucca will likely lead to the continual breach of contract.

"We don't have states that have shown an interest right now," he said.