The Energy Department intends to press ahead with a plan to bury radioactive wastes in a salt bed near Carlsbad, N.M., a department official said yesterday.
The controversial experiment, if successful, could form the basis for a national program of nuclear waste disposal.
"We hope to submit a license application by 1981, defend it and then submit the license to environment review and defend that," Dr. John M. Deutch, director of the department's energy research, said yesterday at the winter meeting of the American Nuclear Society. "I'm optimistic that we can bury our first nuclear wastes in New Mexico by 1985 or 1986.
There had been reports that the plan to bury wastes in New Mexico was being delayed, that it was being moved to another state or that it was being scrapped. Deutch said that is not the case.
The Energy Department plans to bury three different kinds of radioactive waste outside of Carlsbad to demonstrate that all three can be buried safely. One is "transuranic" waste like plutonium, a second is radioactive spent fuel burned up in nuclear power plants, and the third is the "hot" military wastes now buried at the Hanford Reservation in Washington or at Savannah River, S.C.
Plans call for permanent burial of military plutonium wastes now stored in Idaho. Spent fuel - up to 1,000 casks - would also be buried at Carlsbad, but might be moved later. The hot military wastes would be buried at a depth of 2,500 feet, then removed and reburied elsewhere at a more permanent site than Carlsbad.
The plan to bury the Hot, or highly radioactive, wastes has come under fire from members of the New Mexico congressional delegation, who have said they were first told that such long lived and poisonous material would not be included.
"One problem we've had with the Carlsbad plan is the credibility of the federal government," Nick Franklin, secretary of New Mexico's Energy & Minerals Department, said at the meeting of the American Nuclear Society yesterday. "It is very important to us that the federal government reestablish its credibility on this plan."
Franklin and Deutch said that public hearings on the Carlsbad site will be held right up until 1981, when the Energy Department plans to apply for a burial license from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. Franklin said that recent discussions with the Energy Department have been "frank and forthright."
New Mexico has been promised the right of "veto" if it does not like the Energy Department's burial plan. The state has nothing in its constitution that allows it to place the plan before the voters. As California did with proposition 13.
If the plan is accepted, the Energy Department, will exacavate the burial site out of the Carlsbad salt bed to a depth of more than 2,500 feet. Cost of the excavation and burial site is estimated at $400 million.