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Energy and Nuclear Waste

CONGRESSIONAL passage earlier this month of a wide-ranging energy bill, which President Bush plans to sign, raises hopes that a number of thorny, lingering problems in the energy field may finally get the attention they demand.

This prompts no sighs of relief, however, from those involved in or informed about United States energy policy. The challenge is enormous; it is also international in scope.

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The new law would accelerate action to provide much-needed safe storage of nuclear wastes while streamlining the licensing process to make it easier to build new nuclear power plants. It provides tax incentives to boost the use of natural gas and encourage the use of alternative fuels for cars and trucks.

The legislation contains provisions for restructuring the electricity industry. It seeks to bridge the gap between energy demands and environmental protection and encourage use of renewable energy sources.

And it dampens a recently rekindled controversy by putting a one-year moratorium on strip mining for coal on federal lands.

But perhaps the most pressing issue addressed by the energy bill is the need for safe, long-lasting storage of radioactive nuclear waste, mostly from power plants.

For more than 25 years, nuclear power facilities have been "temporarily" storing radioactive waste on plant sites while engineers, scientists, and government officials have sought the best processes for isolating the material and the safest repositories for it over thousands of years.

Storage deep underground in dry areas has long been considered the best approach. Two sites have been selected: deep under Yucca Mountain in Nevada and in a network of salt caverns in southeastern New Mexico.

Local opposition has been rock-solid in both states. Members of Congress and other officials vow to continue to block the use of these sites, but the passage of the energy bill with the nuclear storage provisions still intact indicates a growing realization that the time to act has come.

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After years of careful study, planning, and testing, it seems reasonable to allow further tests in which small amounts of carefully packaged radioactive waste would be placed in these repositories.

The outcome of such tests is not predictable. Even if the repositories are declared safe and put into use, this would not be an argument for increased dependence on nuclear power, though such power will remain a part of the US energy picture for a long time.

Safe storage of spent nuclear waste would be a tremendous improvement. But the waste would still have to be transported from the plants; the need for strict safety precautions in this process is obvious.

It is easy to understand the opposition to the storage plans, and dissenters may be able to delay action for a while longer. But the nuclear-waste problem must be confronted for the sake of present and future generations.

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