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Messing Up a Waste Problem

September 28, 1987

The Department of Energy has made a mess of the national effort to choose a site for permanent disposal of highly radioactive nuclear waste, including spent fuel from nuclear-power plants. There is no public confidence in the plan that the department is attempting to implement but has bungled at virtually every step. It is time to stop the process and review it carefully.

Rep. Morris K. Udall (D-Ariz.), chairman of the House Interior Committee, has a sensible proposal to do just that. Saying that "the program is in ruins," Udall and 55 other House members, both Republicans and Democrats, are sponsoring HR 2888 to suspend site-selection activities for 18 months. During that period a special independent commission would review the process and report back to Congress on how it might be improved.

A rival plan comes from Sen. J. Bennett Johnston (D-La.), chairman of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee. Johnston has proposed an overhauling of the 1982 Nuclear Waste Policy Act, and has attached it by amendment to a budget reconciliation measure. The Johnston plan would increase federal monetary incentives to states that would be willing to accept the nuclear-waste dump. The plan would streamline the process by selecting one site by Jan. 1, 1989, and beginning geologic studies there rather than at the three sites now being considered--in Nevada, Washington state and Texas. The search for a second site would be postponed until the year 2110.

The Johnston alternative is more likely to increase fears that the federal government is rushing ill prepared into a waste-disposal program that must serve the nation for centuries but is fraught with uncertainties. Also, any state that is willing to accept the nuclear-waste dump should receive some compensation, but bribery is not the proper way to find a site.

The 1982 law provided for the location of two high-level waste sites--one in the East and one in the West. Because of immense political opposition, the Energy Department indefinitely postponed selection of an Eastern site and concentrated on locating the first dump in the West. At the same time, it chose Tennessee as the site of an interim storage facility. This action alarmed Tennessee officials and residents, fearful that "temporary" could become decades as the government struggled against technical problems and lawsuits to win approval for a permanent dump.

Most of the waste is in the form of used nuclear-power-plant fuel rods that are being stored in reservoirs at the power-plant sites. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission has determined that such storage can safely be continued for up to 30 years after a plant's license has expired. Thus there is ample time for the review that Udall proposes and for the permanent disposal program to go forward after restructuring, if necessary.

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