The Senate last night approved legislation that would establish a national program for storage of radioactive wastes that have accumulated at nuclear utilities and weapons plants over a period of 35 years.
The vote on final passage was 69 to 9.
Congress has been arguing over the controversial issue for the past three years while the lack of a comprehensive policy has fueled the antinuclear movement and contributed to a near collapse of the nuclear utility industry.
Sen. Charles McC. Mathias Jr. (R-Md.) said passage of the nuclear bill would be "comparable to the giant step for mankind that occurred on the moon in July, 1969."
An atomic waste bill, passed by both houses in 1980, died when the House and Senate disagreed over whether states could block storage of military wastes within their borders.
On the House side this year, the bill is stalled in the Energy and Commerce Committee.
Across the nation the nuclear waste issue has inflamed parochial passions, that were evident in the regional nature of the Senate debate. No state wants to be the site of burial or storage facilities.
"Everyone wants to proceed, but they want the other fellow to take the waste," said Sen. Pete V. Domenici (R-N.M.).
Atomic waste remains radioactive and poisonous for thousands of years and public alarm has grown rapidly over how to cope with the massive amounts already generated.
The current bill, a result of complex negotiations among the Environment, Armed Services and Energy committees, requires the secretary of energy to pick the first permanent burial site by 1986 and a second site by 1992.
Prime candidates are salt formations in Mississippi, Texas, Louisiana and Utah and rock formations in Washington and Nevada.
Mississippi Sens. John C. Stennis (D) and Thad Cochran (R) lost an attempt to delay the selection schedule by three years while the Energy Department explored other sites in detail.
However, as an interim solution until final burial sites are selected, the bill provides for government-built, longterm storage facilities where wastes could be monitored and retrieved.
South Carolina, New York and Illinois are candidates for such facilities, and senators from those states, led by Sen. Strom Thurmond (R-S.C.), tried to kill this.
Thurmond's amendment, backed by environmentalists who call the interim facilities "another taxpayer bailout of the nuclear industry," failed, 47 to 43.
The highly radioactive spent fuel from uranium-burning electric utilities has been temporarily stored in water on power plant grounds.
Now the water pools are filling up and utilities in Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Flordia, Illinois and Michigan will begin to run out of storage space in four years.
The bill sets procedures for consulting a state if a site is to be located within its border.
If a state objects and one house of Congress concurs, the site is automatically eliminated.
Amendments to strengthen the states' veto power failed.
The bill directs the government to finance the program by charging the nuclear industry one cent per 10 kilowatt hours of generated electricity.
The fee could rise, depending on the cost of storage and burial.
Although the Armed Services Committee implacably opposes the inclusion of military waste in the bills, Sens. Gary Hart (D-Colo.) and Alan Simpson (R-Wyo.) successfully argued that the same safeguards should apply to military weapons waste, which constitutes 90 percent of the highly radioactive waste generated since the 1940s.
However, the president could decide, on the basis of national security and other factors, to treat military waste differently, the senators concluded.