Boston — The question of who is - and isn't - willing to accept responsibility for disposing of low-level radioactive wastes is generating new controversy.
Exit polls following this fall's elections showed that nearly 60 percent of the Massachusetts voters who helped throw new obstacles in the path of low-level waste disposal here didn't understand what they were voting about.
Nonetheless, environmentalists hope - and the nuclear industry fears - the fallout from that vote will have major national implications. It already has Massachusetts' neighbors up in arms.
The binding referendum, which passed by a 2-to-1 margin, requires legislative approval followed by a favorable statewide vote before nuclear wastes can be disposed of here. The likelihood of obtaining both, however, is questionable.
''A welcome precedent,'' enthuses Marvin Resnikoff, who heads a nuclear-waste transportation project for the Council on Economic Priorities in New York. Mr. Resnikoff says he hopes other states follow the lead of Massachusetts and add the question to their own ballots in coming elections.
''A very healthy development,'' concurs Mina Hamilton, director of an educational campaign on radioactive waste for the Sierra Club. ''We feel it's important to have as much public exposure of this issue as possible. The nuclear industry has to admit that there have been terrible, chronic problems'' in the disposal of such wastes.
But to Janis Stelluto, executive director of the New England Consortium of Radioactive Materials Users - mainly research laboratories, hospitals, and private industries - the Nov. 2 vote ''just allows new ways to say no'' to disposal.
''There's no midnight dumping'' of low-level wastes as is often the case with toxic chemical wastes, she argues. ''When you talk about nuclear materials, you're talking about accountability. Research and medicine would have to take a giant step backward if it weren't for nuclear materials.''
Besides, those in the nuclear industry contend, a large proportion of the wastes is made up of items such as used laboratory coats, gloves, shoe covers, plastic bags, and aluminum foil that come in contact with relatively weak quantities of radioactive material.
Moreover, costs of packaging and shipping the waste materials to disposal sites in other parts of the country are rising. What cost $22 per drum to get rid of in 1978 now runs more than $140 and soon will go higher, say officials of New England Nuclear, a leading producer of radioactive chemicals for medical treatment.
The nuclear industry regards this issue as critical to its future because the federal Low-Level Radioactive Waste Policy Act of 1980 mandates that by 1986 each state must make arrangements for the disposal of its own wastes. Currently most of those wastes are shipped to facilities in Washington State, South Carolina, or Nevada.
Most states have banded together in regional compacts whose structure and rules must be ratified by the legislature of each member as well as by Congress. Each compact would operate its own central disposal site, which could be closed to nonmembers.
So far, Texas and California are the only holdout states - the latter because it is willing to participate in compact but not as host of a disposal site.
Because of the Massachusetts referendum, its fellow members of the Northeastern compact are meeting to consider throwing the state out into the cold. No sooner had the referendum vote been taken than the Northeast Low-Level Radioactive Waste Policy Working Group met and produced a document that asked, in effect: Why should Massachusetts, one of the nation's largest generators of such wastes, be allowed to enjoy the benefits of compact membership without sharing the responsibility for disposal? The Council of Northeastern Governors is taking up the issue at its Dec. 20-21 meeting in New York.
Massachusetts Attorney General Francis X. Bellotti promptly announced he would support efforts to amend the referendum because it could lead to the state being barred from the Northeastern compact, leaving the nuclear industry here ''no place to go.'' The water table in most of the state is high, and annual precipitation so heavy, that environmentalists consider Massachusetts a poor risk for any type of new landfill designed to hold hazardous waste.
Resnikoff says he views the possibility of Massachusetts or any other state being thrown out of a regional compact as ''an empty threat'' that would not stand up in court.
''The experience of (radioactive waste) burial sites around the country has not been good,'' he says, pointing to the closure of facilities in West Valley, N.Y., Sheffield, Ill., and Maxie Flats, Ky. All were found to leak radiation.
Burial grounds for nuclear waste are not unlike landfills for toxic chemicals and are subject to the same kinds of problems, environmentalists argue. Not only do their earthen covers settle unevenly and crack - allowing radioactive material inside to become flooded and leach into nearby aquifers - but many citizens have lost confidence in the ability of federal government to monitor the sites, especially after they fall into disuse, Resnikoff says.
Ms. Hamilton claims the nuclear industry ''has been less than candid with the public in throwing all the light on lab coats and booties'' instead of on sludges and resins that result from the use of radioactive materials. Some of the latter wastes take many hundreds of years to decay.
She says the Sierra Club wants closer attention paid to the sorting and storage of low-level wastes at the point of use prior to shipment. Those materials contaminated with the least harmful, most short-lived radioactivity ultimately could be disposed of in ordinary landfills or even incinerated, she suggests. But that could only happen if they are separated from the more potent sludges and resins.