IF the United States Department of Energy had set out to undermine popular confidence in the federal government, it could scarcely have done so more effectively than in the nuclear-waste-dump controversy. In January, DOE announced a list of a dozen sites east of the Mississippi being considered for a permanent dump for high-level nuclear waste. A number of Western sites for such a dump had been under consideration for some time; the thinking was that a second dump would eventually be needed, and that this one should be in the Eastern half of the country.
After the January announcement, the department held community briefings at which townspeople were terrified by officials' apparent ignorance of local geology -- the two proposed sites in Maine are on the Norumbega fault line, for example.
It further frightened the citizens with its lack of answers to questions as to how communities would be protected from transportation accidents, leaking containers, shifting earth, and other potential dangers.
Now Energy Secretary John Herrington has announced that plans for a second dump are being ``postponed indefinitely'' and that a single dump will be established in one of three Western sites -- Hanford, Wash., Yucca Mountain, Nev., or Deaf Smith County, Texas.
We can understand why the residents of those Eastern sites are breathing a sigh of relief. But the relief is not total. The first response from some of the citizens' groups mobilized to fight the waste dump was that they will stay mobilized until it becomes clearer just what ``postponed indefinitely'' means. The encounter with DOE has left many of them badly shaken.
Moreover, though the communities around the Western sites may lack the citizen-activist tradition -- and the early presidential primaries -- of the Eastern sites, many of the unanswered questions about safety of the planned dump, wherever it is ultimately established, remain unanswered.
All the modern technologies we feel we no longer can live without force us into enough difficult choices as it is. For the federal government to have bungled the choice of a waste dump as badly as it has done so far is a grievous betrayal of public confidence.