Congressional efforts to solve the radioactive waste problem may - once again - stumble over the knotty question of what to do about such wastes produced during the manufacture of nuclear weapons.
Should the disposal of radioactive military wastes be part of an overall program, subject to the same regulatory, environmental, and political constraints as civilian installations, including some measure of state control? Or would such moves endanger national defense and security? Inability to answer these questions prevented lawmakers from establishing a national nuclear waste disposal program last year, and the same issue persists.
Still, Congress is closer than in the past to finding a long-range solution to the nuclear waste problem. And even though there is more vigorous debate to be heard when lawmakers return to work in January, observers expect a bill to be passed in coming months.
Public interest has generally focused on commercial nuclear power plants. But wastes from atomic weapons production accounts for half the radioactivity and more than 90 percent of the volume of nuclear waste in the United States, including some 77 million gallons of high-level liquid waste that results annually from the manufacture of plutonium.
The Reagan administration plans to increase nuclear weapons production, so the amount will no doubt increase. The Department of Energy's nuclear weapons programs for 1982 will jump 29 percent (to more than $5 billion) over 1981.
Most of the weapons-related liquid waste is stored in 169 temporary underground tanks at the government's Hanford nuclear reservation in Washington State. Since the mid-1950s, there have been more than 20 instances of leakage at Hanford totaling at least 500,000 gallons of radioactive liquid waste.
''There is an absolutely urgent need for nuclear waste management,'' a utility company executive told a Senate hearing considering various legislative proposals. Although commercial nuclear advocates like to separate themselves from weapons production in the public view, they have a keen interest in seeing that all radioactive waste is adequately disposed of.
Legislation recently agreed upon in Senate committees has several basic provisions.
The Energy Department and US Geological Survey must acquire underground areas for ''permanent disposal of commercial nuclear wastes,'' and complete a US site survey by the end of 1985. Reactors will begin running out of waste storage in ' 86, DOE says.
''Monitored retrievable storage facilities'' that would be less permanent (but safer than existing storage nonetheless) are to be planned for by the DOE as well. ''Away-from-reactor'' spent fuel storage is to be considered as a last resort since such storage involves transporting radioactive materials over longer distances.
To pay for waste storage, a fund would be established to which nuclear power plant operators and utilities would have to contribute. States and Indian tribes would be notified of potentially acceptable sites in their areas and given a ''right of consultation and concurrance.'' The secretary of energy ''must establish a cooperative agreement'' with the affected states and tribes.
On the point of military wastes, Congress agreed (as Rep. Manuel Lujan (R) of New Mexico urged) to ''sidestep the issue.''
Under pressure from House and Senate Armed Services Committees (particularly Sen. Henry M. Jackson (D) of Washington), President Reagan at this point would be directed to submit a plan for the permanent disposal of military wastes by Jan. 31, 1983.
Unless Mr. Reagan determines that separate military storage is required for national security reasons, storage with commercial wastes would proceed subject to the same Nuclear Regulatory Commission licensing.