FOR MOST of the 35 years of the nuclear era, nuclear advocates have argued that technical solutions to the problem of nuclear waste disposal are available and relatively simple -- if only nuclear opponents would knock off the racket. Less biased experts believe there are technical solutions that might prove acceptable after extensive testing. Opponents of nuclear energy have used the lack of a proven waste plan as an argument to try to stop nuclear power altogether.
The few efforts actually to deal with nuclear waste have ended badly. The now-defunct Atomic Energy Commission planned a waste disposal site in a salt mine in Kansas. Despite the seven years of research that preceded the decision, technical problems that forced an end to the project soon became obvious. A different approach to waste management -- a commercial reprocessing plant -- was closed by New York state nearly a decade ago because of radioactive leakage after the plant was abandoned by its corporate owners. No one yet knows how the site can be cleaned up or who will pay the gigantic costs.
Warned by these experiences, state governments have developed a disinclination to have anything to do with nuclear waste: 16 of them have passed laws forbidding waste repositories within their borders.
Six months ago, the carter administration proposed a nuclear waste policy that seemed to provide the basis for a successful program. It argued that since the social, economic and political barriers to an acceptable waste policy are at least as formidable as the technical ones, the only solution is a policy of making haste slowly. Under the plan, technical decisions would be made only after full investigation of several alternatives, state governments and the public would be informed and consulted at each stage, environmental laws would be enforced and waste disposal sites would be licensed by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.
Almost immediately, however, contradictory plans appeared in Congress. Over-zealous nuclear advocates pushed through committee bills that deal with the many impediments to a final program by either ignoring or overriding them: no environmental reviews, no time-consuming investigation of alternative sites, no role for state governments, no more R&D to look for the best technical solution.
Meanwhile, the Armed Services committees, worried that nuclear wastes cannot continue to accumulate for much longer without a permanent solution, and appalled by the thought that state governments, citizens, environmentalists and others might have any say over what happens within their jurisdiction, decreed that nuclear wastes generated in the production of weapons will henceforth be called "defense by-products" and handled independently from commercial nuclear wastes. If this decision is not overturned, the confusion, duplication and waste of money that will follow will be vast.
Neither approach will work. Any plan that is rushed into is likely to fail, and is certain to be politically vulnerable. Efforts to bar admittedly lengthy environmental reviews will only end in even slower litigation. Resistance from state governments will increase. The efforts to forge ahead with a separate, unlicensed defense program to handle the same kinds of waste if equally ill-judged. The public doesn't care whether the radiation that could contaminate its underground water supply comes from reactors or warheads -- the effects are the same.
If Congress really wants to ensure a future for nuclear energy in this country, it should reject these efforts to rush into a program or to steamroller the opposition. A Slow but steady approach, one that gives a real voice to state and local government and one that is accessible to critical review, is the only solution that stands a chance of success.