A fierce row between the Carter administration and the House Armed Services Committee threatens to kill the nation's latest plan to bury nuclear waste before the scheme even goes into effect.
The disagreement is over the administration's wish to dispose of civilian and military atomic waste in the same salt caverns near Carlsbad, N.M., and to have the burial of the wastes licensed by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. The House Armed Services Committee has told the administration it will never approve of a plan that makes any part of the country's military, nuclear weapons activity subject to civilian control.
At stake is the two-year-old Waste Isolation Pilot Project (WIPP), a $400 million plan begun with great fanfare by the Carter administration. The project calls for the burial of spent civilian nuclear fuel alongside the plutonium and the very hot high-level cesium and strontium wastes from the nuclear weapons program.
"The department [of Energy] has put a lot behind WIPP. We've said WIPP is going to be the first permanent repository in the nation for nuclear waste," Energy Deputy Under Secretary Worth Bateman said in an interview. "If you take it away, it will have a very bad psychological effect on the whole waste disposal program."
The issue that threatens the project is not whether the wastes should be buried in salt caverns in New Mexico, but whether military wastes should be buried with civilian wastes and thus become subject to licensing by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.
"The House Armed Services Committee doesn't want commercial waste in with the military waste, and it doesn't want the military waste to be licensed," Bateman said, "because it thinks it could set a precedent that could lead to licensing of all military nuclear activities."
One of the committee's concerns is that WIPP would require solidification and removal of liquid military wastes at the Hanford Reservation in Hanford, Wash., which might allow the release of secret information on how the United States makes its nuclear weapons.
Bateman says the committee, headed by Rep. Melvin Price (D-Ill.), once chairman of the old Joint Committee on Atomic Energy, would only allow WIPP to proceed if civilian wastes were not placed in the Carlsbad salt beds. The NRC could them be kept out of the matter, since civilian licenses for military wastes would not be needed.
"Whether it has defense wastes in it or not, we think it should be licensed," Bateman said. "We think it should be licensed because it is planned as the nation's first permanent (nuclear) waste repository."
A memo to that effect was sent this week from the Energy Department to the White House, where the next move is up to President Carter. He can do one of three things: endorse the Energy Department's position, side with the House Armed Services Committee of kill WIPP.
If Carter shelves WIPP, he might imperil the nation's entire nuclear energy program, since killing WIPP would mean new delays in any plan to bury nuclear wastes. Sen. Gary Hart (D-Colo.), chairman of the subcommittee on nuclear energy, has said the Senate will declare a moratorium on atomic power if a waste disposal plan is not in operation by 1985.
Should Carter decide to shelve WIPP, there is still a chance he will ask Congress for the money to buy the land around the Carlsbad salt beds so the site can be held in reserve. The Energy Department figures it would take $30 million to reserve the Carlsbad site.
"If we're not able to reserve the site, then you have one less place to choose from," Bateman said. "We'd be down to the Louisiana salt domes, the basalt at Hanford and the granite at the Nevada Test Site. That would not create an atmosphere that would be helpful in choosing any one of these sites."