NUCLEAR WASTE has to be buried, sooner or later, and it's becoming increasingly clear that the right place to bury it is at Nevada's Yucca Mountain. The quarrel in Congress is really over the speed with which to force the decision and the conditions that Nevada is entitled to impose.
The waste is being continuously generated by both civilian power plants and military reactors. It's being held above ground in containment facilities that are adequate only as temporary storage. Safety requires putting it underground, but the country hasn't been able to make up its mind where.
Congress tried to establish a route to a decision in its 1982 legislation, but that route now seems to be blocked. The idea was to have the Energy Department explore three sites extensively and then choose one. Unfortunately, the Energy Department got caught up in political considerations concerning the sites. Worse, the costs of investigating the sites have risen wildly with the escalating demands for assurance. It now looks as though site exploration under the 1982 act would cost well over $1 billion per site and perhaps closer to $2 billion.
Sens. Bennett Johnston and James A. McClure, the chairman and the ranking Republican on the Energy Committee, have drafted legislation that would attempt to settle the issue fast -- and perhaps a little too fast. The Senate has now passed their plan as an amendment to an appropriations bill, throwing it into a conference with the House. They would tell the Energy Department to choose one site now -- Nevada isn't named, but it would obviously lead the list -- for exploration. If it proved unsatisfactory, the department would have to find another. But if it met the criteria, the repository would be put there with a federal payment to the state of $100 million a year to assuage its anxieties.
The important thing is to get a decision that will stick, rather than generating another deadlock. Some of the people in the House -- Morris Udall, chairman of the Interior Committee, and Philip R. Sharp, chairman of the energy and power subcommittee, for two -- suggest that more attention to cooperation now will pay off with an earlier decision in the end. Rather than relying on a straight cash payment, they propose a federal negotiator to work with the state ultimately chosen -- i.e., Nevada -- in drafting the terms for accepting the repository. It might be cash, or it might be other benefits. Similarly, they recommend a system of independent scientific review. Nevadans can remember when the federal government claimed that atmospheric testing was harmless. If Nevada is to be the site, it is entitled to more careful consultation that it has, so far, been offered.