The congressional Office of Technology Assessment said yesterday there are no "insurmountable technical obstacles" to constructing disposal sites for high-level radioactive wastes in certain types of geological formations, such as salt or granite.
The OTA study recommended the creation of an independent or even semi-private agency to run the nation's waste management program because, it said, the federal government has been unable to develop a course of action and stick to it. The Environmental Protection Agency is supposed to develop standards; the Nuclear Regulatory Commission is supposed to implement those standards; and the Department of Energy builds the dumps.
Spent fuel from the 74 nuclear power plants around the country is piling up in temporary storage sites, most near the reactors. Vepco has said it might be forced to close the first unit at Surry as early as 1987, when it would run out of temporary storage space.
The OTA also suggested a users' tax on utility customers to pay for locating and building storage sites, which would remove the program from the federal budget. Inadequate funding of research "has led to a reduction in the number of alternative technologies and sites that have been investigated, thus increasing the likelihood that an acceptable system will not be developed in a timely manner and heightening concerns about the technical adequacy of the program," the study said.
The problem is complicated by the opposition of states to housing nuclear disposal facilities; 20 states have passed some form of restrictions over federal waste management activities. The study suggested that the creation of three or four sites would prevent any one state from feeling it was the nation's nuclear dumping ground.
Rep. Marilyn Bouquard (D-Tenn.), chairman of the House Science and Technology subcommittee on energy, said the report "will reinforce in the public mind that the technology for disposal of high-level radioactive waste in a safe and environmentally sound manner is technically feasible."
But David Berick, the Environmental Policy Center's nuclear waste expert, said the report "did not adequately reflect the number of technological uncertainties still out there." He argued that setting a firm schedule could force the federal government to proceed without adequate knowledge, adding that since the Reagan administration, the emphasis has shifted from resolving technological questions to "going with what they've got."
Berick did, however, agree with OTA's conclusion that disposal in "mined geologic repositories" is preferable to other methods under consideration, such as placing the waste below the seabed or in above-ground mausoleum-like structures.