Two members of Congress, arguing that Americans no longer trust the government to deal with the hazards of nuclear energy, introduced legislation yesterday to give the states some veto power over construction of future nuclear power plants and nuclear waste facilities in their territories.
The measure, proposed by Sen. Charles McC. Mathias Jr. (R-Md.) and Rep. James M. Jeffords (R-Vt.), would also provide $1 million to set up an independent Nuclear Waste Management Authority in the executive branch. The agency would have "sole responsibility for planning and managing the transportation, storage and disposal of all nuclear wastes."
"I don't trust the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, I don't trust the Department of Defense in this area or anybody else, and I think lots of Americans feel the same way," Jeffords said at a press conference announcing the bill.
He said the measure was not an attack on nuclear energy in general but only "an attack on the credibility of the institutions running nuclear power facilities right now."
The new agency is needed to deal with waste management, Mathias said, because existing organizations "have had 20 years to get the job done and they haven't done it . . . in part because of a conflict of interest . . . They more and more nuclear material, not have been interested in producing in disposing of it afterward."
The two Republicans said a comprehensive and believable attack on the waste problem could be the key to restoring public confidence in nuclear energy. "The time has come when we simply cannot continue to license more and more nuclear plants without finding an effective solution to the waste problem," Jeffords said.
Spent nuclear fuel is piling up at the nation's 66 nuclear plants at the rate of 2,000 metric tons a year, according to the NRC. Lack of storage space could force the shutdown of 23 plants, beginning in 1979, if action is not taken soon, the Energy Research and Development Administration said recently.
In addition, work on nuclear weapons now produces 7.5 million gallons a year of "high-level" liquid radioactive waste, according to a 1977 Ford Foundation study. It can be converted to a glass-like substance for storage, but must be substance for storage, but must be contained safely for thousands of years.
There already is about 230 million gallons of this waste, Mathias said, adding that it would cost an estimated $20 billion to move it into storage. "Congress will have to pick up the tab for that sooner or later," he said.
It is "almost incredible," he went on, that the storage solution now thought most likely was first suggested 20 years ago: sealed placement in deep, stable geologic formations such as salt beds. At the same time, no site for such a storage area has been chosen.
Under the proposed legislation, state governments would have to be provided all reports, studies and surveys they think necessary in reaching a decision on whether to allow such a storage site or a proposed nuclear power plant in their areas.
The states would be allowed to send nonvoting delegates to NRC proceedings of such sites. The NRC could override a state's veto for facilities for existing wastes or future military wastes, however, and the new authority could pick a site arbitarily if 10 states turned the idea down. The bill does not provide for any federal overriding if a state rejects a new nuclear power plant.
Although Mathias and Jeffords complained that there already have been too many studies of the waste problem and not enough action, their bill provides for the proposed new agency to undertake another study to find suitable waste disposal sites.
"Any recommended site must be capable of containing all material disposed therein without human intervention, commencing 125 years after the date of disposal and following that date for a period of 100,000 years," the bill says. It does not indicate how that is to be determined, which has been one of the puzzles in such research.