VEPCO'S NUCLEAR storage problems are a reminder that time is running out on the opportunity to devise a workable nuclear waste policy. The continuing lack of a national plan for storing and then disposing of the country's growing pile of reactor waste doesn't mean that some catastrophe is coming. But it does mean that whatever solutions are improvised will be more expensive, politically more divisive, probably less safe and certainly less sensible than a policy worked out in advance.

Vepco is one of a few utilities that make up the first wave of what could become a nationwide phenomenon: its storage ponds for holding spent reactor fuel will soon be full. It is all but certain that reprocessing--the original plan for handling spent fuel-- will not take place in this country. And federal repositories, for permanent burial of the unreprocessed fuel rods, will not be ready for at least 20 years. So alternate means must be found to provide interim storage. Vepco's plan is to ship the fuel from its overcrowded Surry plant to the less utilized pools at the North Anna reactor site, but the local government there has refused to allow the shipments.

The nuclear industry's plan for providing interim storage is for the federal government to build and manage a so-called AFR (away-from-reactor) storage facility. The utilities would provide the money, but the government would assume the political burden-- a heavy one--of making it happen. So far no locality has shown anything but hostility to the prospect of becoming home for the indefinite future to a sizable portion of the nation's used nuclear fuel. The fact that there is still no final program for building, licensing, testing and running a permanent repository to which the fuel would be transferred makes it all the harder. No state wants to accept other states' wastes, and the resistance even extends, as Vepco is discovering, down to the county level.

Getting the fuel from reactors across the country to an AFR site is equally difficult. Well over 200 state and local governments have already passed legislation regulating or banning the shipment of nuclear fuel through their jurisdictions. An attempt by the federal government to preempt such local objections was recently struck down in court. It is a safe prediction that if more and more nuclear shipments become necessary, more and more bans will be passed, until finding an open shipping route from point A to point B will require a mathematical wizard.

The AFR proposal is the simplest solution from the nuclear industry's point of view, but because of the political drawbacks this is unlikely to happen. There are other ways to provide the additional storage space at reactors, but utilities (including Vepco) have shown little interest. The industry has been content to push for the AFR and let the government do the work on these alternatives.

With more cooperation from industry, and with a greater sense of urgency in Congress, a workable interim storage plan could be worked out, clearing the way for passage of a nuclear waste plan this year. The odds are against its happening, but it is still possible. If agreement can't be reached, overflowing storage ponds like Vepco's and "not here" responses like Louisa County, Virginia's, will soon become a commonplace.