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Urgent: Nuclear Waste

FOR at least 15 years, the federal government has twisted itself into knots trying to deal with radioactive waste from nuclear power plants. House and Senate conferees meeting today are expected to grapple with the issue as part of the energy and water resources appropriations bill.

The bill contains a provision that would require the US Department of Energy to build an interim storage facility and be ready to receive spent fuel in 1998. Congress should enact it, with modifications, and the president should sign it.

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Several bills dealing specifically with the issue are working their way through Congress. But election-year politics threaten to push those legislative efforts into 1997, only a year before the DOE is obliged to begin receiving spent fuel, as required by the 1982 Nuclear Waste Policy Act.

Meanwhile, 109 nuclear power plants around the country are becoming de facto waste sites. Many of the pools used to store the fuel are reaching capacity, forcing utilities to store the waste in multi-ton concrete and steel casks above ground.

Under these circumstances, the appropriations bill is the means of dealing with the issue promptly. But its provisions require modification.

First, the 1998 deadline should be extended. DOE officials say Congress isn't giving them enough money to build an interim facility by 1998, even though they are entitled to the funds under the 1982 act. And even if the DOE got a facility up and running by '98, the rail and truck fleet needed to haul the waste couldn't be built by then. Meanwhile, a permanent repository is at least 15 years away. In addition, the appropriate environmental studies will take time.

Second, the interim above-ground facility should be placed on DOE land in Nevada, near Yucca Mountain, which already is being studied as a site for a permanent underground repository.

Third, conferees should fully fund DOE's studies of Yucca Mountain, despite their frustration with the work's slow pace.

If money for Yucca Mountain continues to be cut, or if it proves unacceptable for an underground repository, there is no Plan B for highly radioactive spent fuel. That in itself is cause for concern. In the absence of a permanent storage site, consolidating the waste at a single interim facility is far preferable to 109 dispersed sites.

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Consolidating the waste at a single interim facility is far preferable to 109 dispersed sites.

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