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A New Approach to Plutonium Bomb Waste

THE Achilles' heel of nuclear-arms reduction may turn out to be the continuing stalemate over disposal of radioactive plutonium bomb wastes that are piling up at government weapons plants.

When President Bush decided last September to unilaterally dismantle part of the nuclear deterrent and close much of the production line, it seemed that Congress might resolve the 20-year battle over disposal of waste from defense nuclear plants. These are tough times for reaching agreement on any waste-disposal problem, let alone one involving highly radioactive wastes that must be isolated from the human environment for tens of thousands of years. But an underground geologic vault for these wastes exis ts in southeastern New Mexico, and it deserves a fair test.

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Carved from a thick bed of salt, the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant, or WIPP, is a labyrinth of tunnels and rooms 2,150 feet beneath the desert east of Carlsbad. Completed in 1989 at a cost of about $1 billion, WIPP is designed to hold materials contaminated by small but highly toxic particles of plutonium, called transuranic wastes, that are generated or stored at 10 nuclear-weapons plants and national laboratories across the country.

The amount of transuranic waste at some plant storage sites is expected to increase as nuclear warheads and several weapons facilities are disassembled. Unfortunately, the shipment of even small quantities of waste to WIPP as part of an initial five-year test phase has been blocked by a number of legal actions against the Department of Energy. The most recent of these resulted in a federal court order requiring the approval of Congress and the state of New Mexico.

Aside from nuclear-weapons proliferation, no aspect of nuclear energy concerns people more than nuclear-waste disposal. In the case of deep underground disposal, this concern is underscored by uncertainties about below-surface geology, and what could happen over the long term to buried nuclear waste. However, the National Academy of Sciences and many scientific review committees here and abroad have determined that this kind of geologic isolation is the best and safest long-term option for highly radioac tive waste - not only the transuranic waste destined for WIPP but also the spent nuclear fuel from commercial nuclear power plants to be entombed at Yucca Mountain in Nevada.

While there is no way to provide ironclad assurances that highly radioactive waste will never escape its containers in some future millennium, acting without total certainty is not foolhardy; it is real life.

New Mexico opposes the opening of WIPP without safety standards set by an independent agency. Congress could and should approve a bill that would require the Energy Department to follow safety standards set by the Environmental Protection Agency, and specify the amount of compensation the state should receive for its costs in building road bypasses to ensure safe shipment of nuclear waste. The measure would also transfer the WIPP site from general public use to the Energy Department.

Environmental critics seeking further delays will only exacerbate another problem - WIPP's collapsing walls. The repository was designed to allow its rooms dug out of embedded salt to crumble slowly around the drums of waste to be stored there. But the salt has a high rate of creep, and sections of walls are now falling in on empty chambers. The walls are being reinforced until the waste arrives, but continuing opposition to WIPP only ensures further delays and rising costs.

Opponents ignore the reality that maintaining plutonium wastes indefinitely at temporary government storage sites will multiply the risk of an accident. That may not concern some in the anti-WIPP movement. But the public has a right to expect better from Congress. Now's the time to bring this costly sideshow to an end.