Radioactive waste has been piling up at temporary storage depots around the nation since the dawn of the nuclear age more than 30 years ago. It has become one of hte hottest of technological hot potatoes.
How and where can the waste be locked away from humans for the next 10 to 10, 000 years?
The President, in a plan he introduced Feb. 12, favors a storage program that leads up to a government-operated, geologically isolated facility by the year 2000. But Congress may be moving in another direction.
Before its Aug. 8 recess, the Senate is expected to consider a nuclear waste program authored by Sen. J. Bennet Johnston (D) of Louisiana. It would accelerate the federal program and result in permanent storage facilities on the earth's surface.
Carter administration has argued that the country still lacks the scientific and technical expertise the Johnston bill requires to begin immediate "demonstration" repositories. But in the six months after the Feb. 12 unveiling by the President, the White House failed to follow through with implementation directives, complains David Berick of the Environmental Policy Center. And the initiative may have been lost to Congress.
By agreement, the Johnston bill, a product of the Senate Energy Committee, will be considered the primary vehicle for the Senate to address the nuclear-waste issue when it reconvenes next week. A bill closer to administration's plan is being sponsored by Sens. Gary Hart (D) of Colorado and Jennings Randolph (D) of West Virginia. But parts of the Hart-Randolph bill now will have to be considered as amendments to the Johnston bill.
The House will take action on the waste issue after the August recess.
According to one group of scientists, the technical means for achieving an end-of-century waste disposal facility are likely to be fairly well developed by the 1990s. But, says a recent report of the Union of Concerned Scientists: "Dealing with the political and societal requirements needed to ensure success will be much more difficult."
Mr. Carter planned to address these stickly political factors by creating a state planning council, composed of nine governors and five federal officials, to coordinate all aspects of the federal waste program with the states involved. The Johnston bill does not include this feature; moreover, its emphasis on surface storage (in part, because Senator Johnston's state, Louisiana, would be a prime location if geological containment were the goal) could cause more concern on the part of the public.
The nuclear power industry has pointed out that Senate Johnston's proposal to have the Department of Energy begin construction almost immediately on "demonstration" repositories might help convince the public that the nuclear waste problem is capable of solution, and thus help ease fears.
Mr. Berick, who favors the Carter administration plan, disagrees: "Storing is not really a credible solution. Location opposition always forms around spent-fuel storage sites. I don't think you solve the political problems without a totally new public process."
A spokesman for the Carter administration says he does not expect the nuclear waste issue to be settled prior to congressional adjournment in October. Thus, a working plan could be deferred until after the November election.