With a rush of rhetoric and political string-pulling, another chapter in the long, bitter debate between pro- and anti-nuclear forces is reaching a climax in Congress.
The problem is garbage, but it is unlike any your kitchen even generated. It is nuclear garbage that remains lethal and radioactive for centuries.
Nothing about the debate is simple, but with work time limited by the planned October adjournment, pressure is building for quick passage of nuclear-waste control legislation.
Senate floor action could come in the next week or so, when an Energy and Natural Resources Committee bill, favored by the atomic industry and opposed by nuclear critics, is taken up.
Other Senate and House committees with nuclear jurisdiction are scrambling for pieces of the action, hoping to put their own imprint on a federal storage program.
The congressional maneuvering is over the handling and storage of nuclear wastes, where and how to store them, who will be in charge, and the public's part in the decisions.
The controversy involves private industry, environmental groups, the Carter administration and at least 11 congressional committees, each with its own point of view on nuclear garbage.
As the legislative wheels turn, several points are emerging:
Nuclear-fueled utilities and some major corporations now involved in waste-handling stand to be relieved of costly problems and liabilities by a shift of responsibility to the federal government.
States' fears and their desire for more control over waste-dump siting decisions are getting short shrift in Congress. Curiously, the National Governors Association has kept a low profile throughout the debate.
After an imposing start last year, with a proposal for a comprehensive and cautious approach to waste management, the White House appears to have taken a back seat as the fight spreads across Capital Hill.
Pro-nuclear elements content that the need for new waste-storage facilities is so great that action must be taken now. The Senate Energy Committee bill, guided by J. Bennett Johnston (D-La.), moves in that direction, as does a House bill pushed by Rep. Mike McCormack (D-Wash.), a staunch nuclear supporter.
The other side deems the need not so urgent and the technical problems so huge that a legislative "quick fix" won't work. Sens. Gary Hart (D-Colo.), John Glenn (D-Ohio), Jennings Randolph (D-W.Va.), Charles Percy (R-Ill.) and Rep. Morris K. Udall (D-Ariz.) are leaders on that side.
The fight is important to the nuclear-generating industry, which accounts for about 13 percent of U.S. electricity, and which wants to tranquilize fears about public-health consequences of atomic garbage.
"The urgency is that we have to resolve the issue -- progress is prevented by the impasse over the waste-repository siting question,' an official of the American Nuclear Energy Council said.
"We have come up with the best that can be done. This debate has gone on for 25 years and it must be solved. The Senate Energy Committee says this has undermined public confidence and that we ought to do what we know can be done now, while continuing research and development on other techniques."
One of the go-slow senators, Randolph, chairman of the Environment and Public Works Committee and a champion of coal, said yesterday, "Some radioactive waste must be isolated from the human environment for 1,000 years. For Congress to adopt a cautious approach in the face of the potential hazards can only reassure our citizens."
Randolph's committee is scheduled to meet again today to try to complete its own version of a waste-control bill in time for the floor debate. The House Interior and Commerce committees have similar marks-ups in progress on their own bills.
Major questions include whether waste will be kept at nuclear reactors or at expensive federal facilities, how much oversight the Nuclear Regulatory Commission would have over the Department of Energy's supervision of storage, how and where sites will be chosen, and the extent of state involvement in storage and transportation decisions.
The Johnston bill would create a $300 million revolving fund, using federal money for starters, so DOE could set up site acquisitions. Utilities' waste would be stored for a fee and become DOE's responsibility.
That approach, which also entails DOE purchase of several existing commercial storage sites, seems certain to stir emotions on the Senate floor.
"What Congress is doing is declaring by law that temporary storage is good enough," said David Berick, lobbyist for the Environmental Policy Center. "We'll be leaving this as a problem future generations will have to deal with.
"What's going on is a kind of public-relations program to solve problems, to disperse the cloud that is over nuclear energy. It will detract from serious long-range efforts to solve it."