On the 40th anniversary of the first controlled atomic chain reaction, the House passed a bill yesterday that would lead to creation of the first permanent burial site for America's high-level radioactive waste.
By a voice vote, the House joined the Senate--which passed nuclear-waste legislation in April--and approved a process that would culminate in the mid-1990s with underground disposal of the spent fuel from the nation's atomic power plants.
The House action came 40 years to the day after a group of scientists at the University of Chicago, as part of the wartime Manhattan Project under Enrico Fermi, launched the nuclear age with the first sustained chain reaction.
"We have been trying for 35 years to enact a nuclear-waste bill," said Rep. Morris K. Udall (D-Ariz.), a leading supporter of the legislation. "Finally, we are on the verge of major success."
But the Senate and House versions of nuclear-waste legislation are so different that backers of the two bills generally agree the odds for reaching a compromise before Congress adjourns in two weeks are no better than 50-50.
Both the House and Senate also passed nuclear waste bills in 1980, but that effort died in conference at the end of the session.
The major issue that prevented enactment two years ago -- whether the massive radioactive waste created as a byproduct of America's nuclear weapons program should be buried together with civilian atomic waste--is not the stumbling block this time.
The House defeated, 281-105, an effort by Rep. Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.) yesterday to make all of the provisions of the legislation equally applicable to civilian and military nuclear waste.
Markey, noting that more than 90 percent of the nuclear waste by volume to date has been generated by the government's weapons program, argued it would not be "honest" to exclude military waste from the rules being formulated for disposal of waste from atomic power plants.
But Rep. Manuel Lujan Jr. (R-N.M.), contended that the spent fuel from civilian power plants is far more radioactive than the defense wastes--accounting for 97 percent of the total radioactivity. He argued that "to threaten the national security for only 3 percent of radioactivity doesn't make very much sense."
Opponents of mingling military and civilian waste in an underground repository have expressed concern that this process could lead to disclosure of the composition of America's nuclear weapons.
As a result, both houses this year adopted a compromise that would allow the president, if he deems it necessary for "national security" reasons, to stipulate that a separate repository is required for military radioactive waste.
But such a repository would have to comply with the same environmental and licensing requirements as a civilian site.
"I think the defense people are going to be coming knocking on the door when we have this civilian repository ready to go in a few years," Udall said yesterday.
But while defense wastes do not appear to be a stumbling block, the House bill is far more restrictive than the Senate's on key issues. These include:
Away-from-reactor storage: The Senate bill is far more sympathetic than the House version to utilities' claim that they are running out of room to store the spent fuel from their atomic power stations, and makes an interim federal storage site more likely.
Monitored, retrievable storage: The Senate bill pushes early constuction of a long-term storage facility where spent fuel could be monitored and retrieved later so the plutonium it contains could be reprocessed and used. The House version imposes more obstacles out of concern that this type of long-term waste storage facility could become an alternative to permanent burial.