THE PROSPECT of passing a nuclear waste bill is about to slip out of the reach of the 96th Congress. This is too bad. For although the bill that has come near to enactment has defects, passage of some compromise version of it could do a great deal for the health of the nuclear industry. What remains of the originally planned legislation is the part dealing only with long-term deep geological disposal of nuclear wastes -- the short-term problem is left out. But even so, there is something to be said for enacting the remnant: without a plan for final waste disposal, the financial soundness and political acceptability of nuclear energy remains in doubt, a technology without a certain future.

The question now blocking agreement is whether nuclear wastes produced in the manufacture of weapons should be handled differently from those produced by commercial energy programs. Sen. Henry Jackson wishes to see defense wastes explicitly excluded.He is troubled by provisions in the pending legislation that give an enlarged role to the 50 states in accepting the siting of waste repositories within their borders. Any state's veto would have to be sustained by a vote of Congress, but the question remains whether an individual state should have such authority over the placing of national defense wastes. Sen. Jackson also believes that because the House bill does not deal with the pressing problem of near-term spent-fuel storage, it does not accomplish enough to be worth compromising on the defense waste issue. He is right that the House bill is seriously deficient in not dealing with the near-term spent-fuel problem, but wrong, we think, in believing that a long-term program is not in itself a big achievement.

Mr. Jackson wants the legislation to exclude defense wastes; others refuse to accept this. Compromises have been proposed. It does not, to put it mildly, look especially promising. But we think both sides in this dispute really owe themselves and their constituents one last hard try. It has taken years of struggle to reach even this point, and there is no guarantee that the degree of agreement now existing could be easily recaptured in the next Congress.