The Senate yesterday voted to put the government in the commercial nuclear waste business, directing the Energy Department to build several temporary storage facilities around the country while a permanent disposal plan is developed.
An alternative approach, which would have kept most of the waste at the sites where it was produced until a permanent site is ready, was rejected, 51 to 44.
The much-amended bill, the first ever to reach a vote in either house of Congress, then passed, 88 to 7.
The principal beneficiary of the bill would be the nuclear power industry, which currently must store its spent fuel in holding pools at reactor sites.
The bill would set up a $300 million fund to pay for the Energy Department's development of the so-called "away from-reactor" storage sites. While the money would come from fees imposed on the industry, the AFR sites would leave open the possibility that they could be converted into reprocessing plants later. The industry believes that could save it millions of dollars eventually.
Industry spokesmen, exulting in victory, called it a good bill that should spur the House to action. "It provided what we think is a good format for getting on with the waste disposal program," said George Gleason of the American Nuclear Energy Council.
Nuclear critics were bitter. "It's a bailout for the industry," said Harvey Rosenfield of Ralph Nader's Critical Mass Energy Project. "They've succeeded in getting taxpayers to take the responsibility for what should be the responsibility of the companies."
The bill outlines a complex procedure for choosing the temporary sites, which would also house some military waste. It also would require the government to show progress toward a permanent disposal method and site. It also would give the states a limited voice in the whole process.
Action on the waste problem became a high priority this year after President Carter called in February for an operating disposal site by 1995. With 77 million gallons of high-level military waste and 7,700 metric tons of spent reactor fuel awaiting a permanent home, many nuclear facilities are beginning to run out of storage space.
Sen. J. Bennett Johnston (D-La.) listed 21 commercial power plants that the Department of Energy has said will be in trouble between now and 1984. Failure to build the interim storage sites, he said, could "stop the industry in its tracks" and lead to plant shutdowns.
But Sen. Alan Simpson (R-Wyo.) countered that most of those plants could either build additional storage facilities at their present locations or "re-rack" the spent fuel to give them another 10 years of operation. Arguing against the need for immediate construction of any storage sites away from the reactors, he said transport to the sites would be a problem, as would the additional costs that would be shouldered by taxpayers as a whole rather than by those who benefited from the nuclear plants.
AFR facilities will continue "a pattern of paternalism" for the nuclear industry by the federal government, he said. After the vote that rejected his view, contained in an amendement from Sen. Gary Hart (D-Colo.), Simpson said he and Hart had "just not had time to explain it properly" to the other senators. Hart's proposal only emerged from committee on Friday.
The Senate-passed measure includes a complex procedure giving state governments involvement in the choice of a storage site without giviing them veto power. As Sen. Charles H. Percy (R-Ill.) put it in Monday's debate, "if state governments are given unlimited veto power . . . they will exercise the power every time, regardless of the merits of a plan. Public anxiety about the problem is that great."
The issue of state roles occupied most of the discussion. The final comprise would allow either house of Congress to side with a protesting state by vetoing the Department of Energy's final site plan for commercial waste storage within 60 days of its submission.
State "repository review panels" named by governors would be kept informed of all DOE studies and findings and could file a protest to Congress if no agreement could be reached. In the case of defense waste sites, both houses of Congress would have to veto an administration choice in order for the state protest to be upheld.
Johnston, who managed the bill through the Senate, called it "monumental," and said it represented an approach that had "maximum regard not only for safety but for the appearance of safety."
Three alternative approaches are pending in the House from as many committees, but all sides are confident that some action can be expected in time for a law to be enacted this session.