All but the most diehard opponents of nuclear power agree on one thing--the industry desperately needs a waste disposal plan. A widely acceptable strategy for dealing with the tons of accumulated and future waste will not guarantee a rosy financial future for this troubled industry, but without one, nuclear energy's prospects cannot substantially improve.

The plan has to include the rules and a schedule both for interim storage of wastes and for their permanent disposal. A permanent repository, which must contain radioactive wastes for thousands of years, has to be done right the first time and should therefore meet rigorous licensing standards. Those "friends" of nuclear power who insist on an accelerated schedule for finding and constructing a permanent repository are only asking for trouble--more political resistance now and technical disappointments later.

Interim storage facilities, on the other hand, can be designed with more flexibility. The country can no longer afford the luxury of philosophical debates over whether federal building of such facilities is or isn't a "bail-out" of the nuclear industry. At this point it doesn't matter. There is plenty of blame to parcel out to all parties for the fact that soon there will be no room for more nuclear wastes in reactor storage ponds, and nowhere else to put them.

For years, Congress has tried and failed to enact a waste program. Part of the reason has been the lack of confidence, in the industry and in the responsible federal agencies, engendered by past waste-disposal fiascoes. Part has been opposition from those who hoped that the continuing lack of a waste plan would halt construction of new plants. Sometimes the industry has been unwilling to compromise. In Congress there has been fragmented jurisdiction and a surfeit of proposed plans.

This year the bottleneck is the House Energy and Commerce committee. The Senate, which in the past has found it hard to reach agreement on a comprehensive bill, has acted. The House Interior and Science committees have reported out bills close enough to each other aaxpaynd to the Senate bill to make final passage this year a real possibility.

It would be a tragedy for Congress to fail again. The commerce committee owes it to its colleagues and to the national interest to take up a waste bill promptly, with or without a prior consensus on the provisions. Energy Secretary James Edwards, who says he badly wants a bill before he leaves Washington, could do a lot more than he has to help make that happen.