THE LACK OF a nuclear waste disposal policy remains one of the chief bars to a healthy nuclear power industry. There is no imminent technological crisis--but after 20 years without a solution, the public, Wall Street and even the nuclear industry are all losing confidence that the problem will ever be solved. Without a waste policy, or even a realistic prospect of one, utilities are understandably reluctant to join those owning the growing pile of homeless radioactive waste.
There is no lack of waste disposal plans. What has held up congressional action before has been a surfeit of plans, and this year is turning out to be no exception. Three committees in the House and two in the Senate are arguing over different approaches. Workable compromises that were agreed to in the closing days of the last Congress have been abandoned. Whether the new ideas are better or worse, the fact that they are new guarantees further inaction.
Though Congress seems capable of arguing over the details forever, the outlines of a technologically sound and politically feasible program have been evident for some time. Nuclear waste disposal really involves two very different tasks: permanent disposal that will contain wastes safely for thousands of years, and interim storage until a permanent repository is ready. Permanent disposal has to be done right the first time. Therefore caution and exceedingly demanding safety standards--even perhaps unnecessary caution--are appropriate. Rules for interim storage can be much more flexible. Arguments over whether the federal government would be "bailing out" the nuclear industry by providing interim storage are beside the point and should be ignored so long as the industry bears the costs.
States must be given an important voice in the siting of waste disposal facilities. But since disposal is a national burden and responsibility, states should not be granted an outright veto. Last year's compromise--allowing a state to veto a site only if either the House or Senate can be persuaded to support the objection--was probably as good an answer as will be found.
Final disposal of civilian and defense nuclear wastes should be managed in a single program. This will not slow down bomb-making, because defense wastes can be kept in interim storage--as they have been for 35 years--indefinitely. Two separate programs would mean great duplication and expense, and ultimately accomplish nothing, since a defense program that does not meet the safety and licensing standards required for civilian wastes is unlikely ever to be politically acceptable.
Two years ago, President Carter proposed a comprehensive waste plan. It was immediately criticized by nuclear advocates as being much too cautious, and by nuclear opponents as too precipitous. Both sides pushed their own alternatives. Two years later nothing has been accomplished. Unless nuclear proponents and skeptics in Congress can put aside their differences in the name of their common interest--the national interest--in beginning a waste disposal program, the fate of the Carter plan, still a perfectly acceptable basis for proceeding, will be repeated again and again.