FORGET the old fuel rods piling up at nuclear power plants in the United States. There's a more urgent radioactive-waste problem to solve.
A substantial part of the roughly 1 million cubic feet of dirty gloves, contaminated equipment, used chemicals, and other low-level (mildly radioactive) waste that the US generates each year may soon have no place to go.
A pileup of this kind of waste could begin to curtail a wide range of beneficial uses of radioactive material. It also will encourage hospitals, universities, and other waste producers to store their wastes on their own sites. And that, says Nuclear Regulatory Commission Chairman Ivan Selin, "should only be allowed as a last resort."
Some of these waste producers are already turning to that resort as the last nationally accessible repository prepares to close down. There were three such national dumps 13 years ago - in Barnwell, S.C., Beatty, Nev., and Hanford, Wash. Beatty closed last January. Hanford accepts waste only from members of the so-called Northwest Compact - Alaska, Idaho, Montana, Oregon, Utah, and Washington plus Hawaii.
Now only Barnwell remains open to all comers. Next June 30, it too will restrict access and will accept waste only from the Southeast Compact - Alabama, the Carolinas, Florida, Georgia, Mississippi, Tennessee, and Virginia. By 1996, Barnwell is likely to be shut down entirely.
Congress prepared the way for the low-level-waste crunch when it passed the Low Level Radioactive Waste Policy Act 13 years ago. That stuck the states with the responsibility for dealing with this kind of waste. It encouraged them to form "compacts" to handle waste regionally. Most states joined one of nine such compacts. But Massachusetts, Michigan, New Hampshire, New York, Puerto Rico, and the District of Columbia are on their own.
As amended in 1985, the law set Jan. 1, 1993 as the deadline for compliance. The scheme has not worked well. Even though most states have joined compacts, local opposition to proposed sites slows the development of waste repositories. For example, the Midwest Compact expelled Michigan for refusing to host a low-level-waste dump.
Currently, the situation is more muddled than bleak. Texas, which has formed a compact with Maine and Vermont, hopes to have a disposal facility ready within three years. North Carolina is considering opening a repository to replace Barnwell.
There also is a dramatic reduction in waste generation. The annual national total dropped from 2.7 million cubic feet in 1985 to 1.4 million cubic feet in 1992. The rising cost of waste disposal and the prospect of having to store it themselves prods many waste producers to use radioactive materials more efficiently and to recycle them when possible.
Furthermore, nuclear-power utilities produced less than 40 percent of the total national low-level-waste volume last year. The mildly radioactive metal debris and sludges resulting from normal maintenance had accounted for over half the national low-level waste.
These hopeful trends have their downside. Thirteen years ago, three facilities took care of the entire national low-level-waste stream when it was twice as big as it is today. Now there may not be enough waste to support nine regional disposal facilities, even if they were open to all comers. Thus economics, as well as local citizen opposition, works against the scheme of regional waste disposal.
Congress should revisit this issue. The regional-compact scheme is needlessly complex. It would be simpler to provide one or two national dumps that all states could use. There's no need to put hospitals, universities, and other users of radioactive materials through a wringer.