Two key House committees have managed to bring antinuclear forces and the nuclear industry together in a cautious and temporary alliance to boost a new proposal for dealing with dangerous waste.
The measure is expected to come to the floor Monday and all sides agree it is the last chance for action this session. But there are major differences with the version that passed the Senate July 30, and final passage remains doubtful.
Both the nuclear industry and its critics want a bill in the lame-duck session but for different reasons. The industry wants a waste solution on the books as soon as possible in order to show progress on the issue to people worried about it. Public opinion surveys show more Americans worry about waste than any other nuclear question.
Nuclear critics want a bill because they do not want to be seen as chronic opponents to anything that helps make nuclear energy workable, but they want to make sure that what is passed is! not the Senate version.
"With this on the table, both sides can say they made major concessions in order to get a bill and if it doesn't pass it's the other side's fault," summed up one committee staff member.
Previously warring Reps. Morris K. Udall (D-Ariz.), chairman of the Interior Committee, and John D. Dingell (D-Mich.), who heads the energy and power subcommittee, agreed last week to offer their package to the full House and then to the Senate on a take-it-or-leave-it basis, according to sources.
It would require the president to choose a site for a nuclear waste storage facility by March 30, 1987. The basic requirements for a site would have to be outlined by June 30, 1981, and the secretary of energy would have to pick two geologically different sites by Jan. 1, 1982 for intensive study. The secretary would widen the possible choices to four by Feb. 1, 1985.
The proposal ignores what has been the industry's chief demand: that the government help build one or more temporary waste storage sites for nuclear power plants' use while the permanent site is being chosen and built. The nation's 74 licensed nuclear units are beginning to run out of storage space at their locations. In addition, there are 77 million gallons of high-level military waste awaiting a permanent resting place.
Those so-called "away-from-reactor" (AFR) sites are the centerpiece of the Senate bill, which would provide a $300 million fund for their construction. The Senate, in fact, rejected decisively the approach Udall and Dingell are about to offer again.
But at that point the industry was on the other side. This time the American Nuclear Energy Council has agreed to support Udall and Dingell.
"I'm for any kind of a bill that would start a federal program," said ANEC vice president John Conway. "This bill is a major step. We do think AFRs are needed and we would hope that in the next Congress the committees will give quick attention to it."
Environmentalists objected to the AFR concept on grounds the temporary sites would be a federal bailout for a sick industry. In addition, many argued that each site would be a toehold for a possible future plant to reprocess nuclear waste into more fuel. They were brought into the agreement only when Udall and Dingell promised to refuse and AFR language through the House-Senate conference committee.
"The content of the bill is fine," said Renee Parsons of Friends of the Earth. "We're just very nervous about what could happen in conference."
The proposed measure would allow a state to veto a high-level waste site if it could get one house of Congress to go along with its objections. That appears to be compatible with the Senate approach. States would be allowed to form regional compacts to treat their low-level nuclear wastes at a mutually agreeable location, but a compact would not be allowed to reject wastes from nonmember states until 1987. Regional planning councils provided for in the Senate bill are absent in this one.
"Essentially we dropped everything we couldn't get consensus on," said a committee staff source. "Now it's up to the lobbyists to keep their people on board."