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Making the nuclear waste bill work

The nuclear waste disposal bill passed in the waning hours of the lame-duck session of Congress this week creates almost as many problems as it resolves. Granted, the legislation is a long overdue step toward solving the problem of what to do with the increasing amounts of waste from civilian nuclear power plants.

But in leaving unsettled the issue of what to do with military waste, in not requiring extensive environmental impact statements until afterm the selection of disposal sites, and in giving states a veto power over location of a site, lawmakers have ensured continued haggling over the waste problem right down to the end of the decade.

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Unfortunately, the legislation also fails to specify what type of waste should be ultimately disposed of in such sites - spent fuel coming right from the nuclear plants or the residue from a reprocessing plant, as favored by the Reagan administration. Under the compromise worked out by Congress, spent fuel could be held at temporary holding sites until such time as a more permanent disposal method is agreed upon.

President Reagan, at this writing, is expected to sign the bill, which was backed by the nuclear industry, and criticized by environmentalists. That being the case, the US Department of Energy should work out the most comprehensive compromise possible with the states and with environmental groups critical of the bill. The legislation requires the department to nominate five sites for the first repository and recommend three of them to the president by 1985. Five sites would also be recommended for a second site by 1989.

Since a state veto on such a site would be upheld unless overturned by both houses of Congress, it would seem prudent for the Energy Department to work closely with states sympathetic to accepting a site. The department should also take into account the concerns of environmentalists that impact analysis under the bill as now drafted will not be adequate. In other words, it should ensure that all safety and other environmental factors are considered during the preliminary nomination process for possible sites.

The bill, in short, adds up to an historic first. But it has many flaws, and the Energy Department should make every good faith effort to ensure that the legislation as now written works in the best interests of all Americans.

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