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Nuclear Waste, Manana

TWICE last week state governors spoke biting words about the federal Department of Energy (DOE). The complaints, though born of different circumstances, had the same core: The department has failed in its obligations regarding the storage of hazardous nuclear waste. Gov. Booth Gardner of Washington voiced his dismay at a DOE announcement that it would defer by up to two years a promise to stabilize radioactive liquids at the Hanford nuclear-weapons plant. Under an agreement with the state, DOE was supposed to start construction of a plant where the dangerous liquids, currently stored in unstable tanks, would be imbedded in special glass. The department attributed the delay to technical problems, but some critics think the real reason is budgetary.

Meanwhile, Idaho Gov. Cecil Andrus threatened to intercept a truck that was to have carried nuclear waste from an energy plant in Colorado to a federal atomic storage site in Mr. Andrus's state. The Colorado utility averted a showdown by agreeing to keep the waste. The governor refused to let the truck cross his border because of his contention that the Energy Department has violated an agreement regarding the storage of previous waste shipments.

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Whether the Department of Energy is at fault in these specific cases is, no doubt, a matter of complicated interpretation. What is crystal clear is that the federal government has failed miserably in its responsibility to dispose of nuclear waste safely.

The glitch at Hanford is just the latest episode in a 40-year saga of negligence at America's nuclear-weapons plants. At long last, Washington has acknowledged the problem and has started the cleanup (which unfortunately comes years too late for many workers and ``downwinders'' who were exposed to radiation). But the Hanford delay makes one question DOE's sense of urgency. As for Governor Andrus's complaints, after years of study, debate, and political dancing, the nation is still decades away from building a facility for the permanent storage of nuclear waste.

Sure, the difficulties in nuclear-waste management are complex. And expensive: Cleanup of nuclear weapons facilities are projected to cost nearly $30 billion over the next five years, and could cost more than $100 billion over 30 years.

But the nuclear-waste problem is a time bomb. Energy Secretary James Watkins and others in Washington had better be lying awake nights figuring out how to defuse it.

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