A Washington state company that has been storing 72 tons of low-level nuclear waste in a Beltsville warehouse began hauling the radioactive debris to a federally licensed facility yesterday.

The Maryland attorney general's Hazardous Waste Strike Force is investigating whether SouthWest Nuclear Co. of Richland violated the law by storing the radioactive waste for up to one year after state health officials denied the company a storage permit early last year.

"We're looking at the entire picture -- whatever their violations are, criminal or civil," said Richard M. Hall, assistant attorney general for environment.

The company has a Maryland permit to collect such waste from federal installations, laboratories and hospitals, then transport it immediately to Washington state or South Carolina, where the country's two facilities licensed to store low-level nuclear waste are located. That permit does not allow even temporary storage in the state.

Maryland Department of Health and Mental Hygiene officials stressed that the radioactive waste stored in the warehouse on the 11200 block of Maryland Avenue in Beltsville does not pose a health hazard.

"There are no leaks or anything like that. The waste just should not have been stored in that warehouse to begin with," said Robert Corcoran, radiation control division chief.

SouthWest officials in the company's Richland headquarters, its Pleasanton, Calif., office and at the warehouse could not be reached for comment yesterday. Perry B. Seiffert, the company's attorney in the District would not comment.

Removal of the waste, which started about noon yesterday, will take two weeks and is being strictly monitored by state radiation control officials, Corcoran said.

Packed in 80 drums, the radioactive material includes animal carcasses, biological waste, bandages, robes, other waste from hospitals and federal facilities, "anything exposed to low-level nuclear radiation," said John Koontz, enforcement administrator of the health department.

"Much of it has decayed to the point where it's no longer radioactive," Koontz said. He said the stored material had been properly packaged for transportation in protective drums and is not dangerous.

"The problem at this point is a removal and enforcement problem, not a health problem," Koontz said. "We're monitoring the removal of the waste and we're going to make sure we get the documents at the other end to make sure the waste is properly treated or disposed of and does show up in another place where it doesn't belong." The waste is supposed to be taken to U.S. Ecology Inc., a licensed facility in Richland, he said.

Health officials have ordered the company to conduct a radiological survey of the warehouse to assure that there is no radioactive residue left at the facility, Koontz said.