President Carter will soon announce a national policy on nuclear waste that will effectively postpone the opening of any permanent disposal site until about 1992, according to sources close to the verdict.
He has also decided to allow state governments "concurrence" in the choice of a waste site, thus handing the Department of Energy a double defeat. DOE had wanted only state "collaboration" so as to avoid the possibility of a local veto, and had sought to arrive at a permanent site choice four to six years earlier.
The final policy statement, which will have a wide impact on the nuclear power industry, will be issued in an executive order around the time Congress returns to Washington later this month. The president plans to endorse most of the recommendations on waste policy that he received in March from a special interagency review group, the sources said.
In essence the review group concluded that current technology is sufficient to allow deliberate progress toward selection of a permanent site in which highly radioactive nuclear waste may safely be stored for the necessary thousands of years. Carter sided with the review board, and against the nuclear industry, in deciding that there is no need to get started right away in testing underground salt beds as possible sites.
Instead, he will order that research be accelerated on other types of repositories as well before any of them are used: bedrock pits, salt domes, excavations beneath the ocean floor. The decision to widen the number of possible site types effectively postpones the opening of the first one from about 1988 to 1992, the sources said.
Under the industry approach, which was endorsed by DOE, salt beds would have received priority research in order that some spent nuclear power plant fuel could be stored as a demonstration project in the near future. pResearch on other kinds of sites would continue while the stored fuel was being watched for leaks or other problems.
But Carter telegraphed a negative verdict on that idea in his recent halting of the Waste Isolation Pilot Project (WIPP) in Carlsbad, N.M. DOE had planned to store high-level nuclear wastes in a salt bed there, encasing them in glass in a process called vitrification.
The idea, according to Tom Kuhn of the American Nuclear Energy Council, the industry lobbying arm, was to show the public that nuclear waste can be taken care of safely and that a solution was actively being tested.
"The technology shows the problem can be solved and what people want to see is tangible progress in that direction," he said. "The problem won't ever be solved completely by paper studies."
He called Carter's deferral of WIPP "just another nondecision." The site now goes into a bank of future possible repositories, although an estimated $87 million has already been allocated toward preliminary site work, according to DOE figures.
Instead, major decisions on future waste siting will be made by a special executive planning council, as recommended by the 14-member review group. Composed of governors, state and local officials, Indian leaders and federal officials, the council will consider siting criteria, timetables, the range and focus of environmental impact statements and other sticky issues.
State governments will receive "consultation and concurrence" rights in all decisions, the policy statement is expected to say. Sources close to the statement's construction said there was a battle royal over the wording, with "concurrence" being chosen over "collaboration" in order to indicate a strong state role. However, the exact extent of state veto power may have to be decided either in the courts or by further legislation since existing provisions of the Atomic Energy Act would appear to give the federal government the final say.
DOE has argued that state governors would be better off passing along the political pressures of a waste site to federal agencies. Carter's executive order will stress that siting decisions must be regional ones that recognize the national nature of the problem, and that any state action must be taken on a site-by-site basis. Blanket rejections beforehand would not be acceptable.
The advisory board recommended -- and Carter is expected to propose -- legislation to give the Nuclear Regulatory Commission licensing authority over short-term storage sites and so-called "trans-uranic" wastes, which are low-level but long-lived radioactive products of weapons-related processes. a
The NRC already has authority to license any highly radioactive waste storage site.
Any such legislation would be highly controversial in the House Armed Services Committee, which has repeatedly rejected attempts to extend NRC licensing authority to defense-related nuclear materials.
Pending legislation by Sen. Gary Hart "D-Colo.) would provide the licensing authority and has a preliminary endorsement from the Carter administration, according to Hart aides. The measure also would halt nuclear power plant construction permits if the federal government does not have a licensed waste burial site under construction by 1992.
Other legislation pending on the Senate side would give DOE $25 million with which to take, transport and store nuclear power utilities' spent fuel in some temporary location while a long-term site is being chosen. Most nuclear utilities expect to run out of existing storage space sometime in the 1980s. Several pending amendments would encourage additional storage space construction at each reactor site instead.