Last month the Reagan administration moved quickly to remove the dangerous nuclear waste dump issue from the 1986 election. The Department of Energy announced it has "postponed indefinitely" any action on the seven states that were told in January they were on the list for the so-called "eastern" permanent high-level waste repository.
It was a move that gave great relief to Republican candidates in Maine, New Hampshire, Virginia, North Carolina, Georgia, Wisconsin and Minnesota, which had vociferously protested the prospect of having their land seized and torn up in the interest of providing burying grounds for high-level waste.
But the decision also set off shock waves of indignation in the three western states left holding the bag. Having seen what an uproar can produce in changing the federal mind, Washington, Texas and Nevada are engaged in strenuous "Why us?" campaigns.
The governors of Nevada and Washington appeared before the Senate Energy Committee to protest the process, which they said is "flawed." What they mean is that they think the process is tainted.
They feel that the Nuclear Waste Policy Act of 1982 mandates the secretary of energy to choose a second site. Secretary John S. Herrington, however, disagrees, citing the decline in the amount of waste being generated as the reason for the pause.
Sen. Paul Laxalt (R-Nev.), presidential pal and potential presidential candidate, was also a witness. He said the government should go back to square one on the problem and look at other means of disposing of the waste, maybe at the bottom of the sea.
Sen. Lloyd Bentsen (D-Tex.) asked for a 10-year delay in the procedure.
Sen. Slade Gorton (R-Wash.), speaking for his state, said the decision to abandon the second site showed a "totally defective administration of the law" and failed to take into account the waste being built up by President Reagan's nuclear weapons buildup.
The three states feel imposed upon. Washington already has the world's largest atomic waste repository, and although it is largely passive on matters nuclear, the withdrawal of the Ace of Spades from the seven eastern states has stirred intense resentment. Washington Gov. Booth Gardner (D) suggested to senators that they "bring the process to an immediate halt." Nevadans, said Gov. Richard H. Bryan (D), feel "they got the shaft."
The Department of Energy refused to provide them with funds to make their own geological survey, as required by the Nuclear Waste Policy Act of 1982. Every officeholder in Nevada has joined in lawsuits recently filed in federal court questioning the way Nevada got on DOE's wanted list.
Herrington observed rather redundantly in the context, "Not one elected representative has come and said to us, 'We want your nuclear waste.' "
But if Reagan has spared his party immediate anguish in 1986, he has yet to remove the lethal issue from the 1988 campaign. Vice President Bush will now not have to face hostile homeowners in New Hampshire in the first presidential primary. But what about Texas? It is his adopted state, and of major concern to any presidential contender. Texas is still on the list, and the proposed dump site cuts through the richest agricultural area of Texas and an underground water source for the region.
If the president feels obligated in any way to Bush, he may want to give some reassurance to Texans. And what of Nevada? It recommends itself geologically and demographically. But it is the home state of Laxalt, who is leaning back and waiting until the Republicans come to him and say they would like the man most like Reagan to take his place. The dump site is a huge issue in Nevada, and James Santini, Laxalt's choice to succeed him, is trailing in the polls, partly because he has not yet, like his Democratic rival, Harry Reid, voiced opposition to the dump "under any circumstances."
Laxalt, it is well remembered, opposed Reagan on the location of a race-track system for the MX missile in Nevada. And he won.
He is being needled by Nevada newspapers to get Nevada off the hook again. That leaves Washington. Anyone with the wispiest sense of fairness would have to admit that Washington has had more than its share of the nuclear burden. Hanford is the site of the world's first atomic reactor and its largest waste dump. Washington feels it has done enough. It begins to look as though a decision on nuclear waste has been "postponed indefinitely." Reagan may just dump it on the next generation.
An interim solution of sorts would be Monitored Retrievable Storage. But this would be less safe and could occasion retrieving of plutonium to make still more nuclear weapons and create still more waste.