San Francisco — Quiet progress in one significant environmental area has been overshadowed by recent controversies over acid rain, toxic waste dumps, and other issues. Under a law enacted late last year, a timetable has been established for the approval and construction of underground storage sites for the disposal of highly radioactive spent fuel rods from nuclear power plants.
Research is nearing completion on whether this waste, which now sits in temporary disposal facilities on power plant sites, can be safely stored for several decades in underground caverns.
The Nuclear Waste Policy Act of 1982 (NWPA) - passed by the lame-duck 97th Congress and signed by President Reagan just before Christmas - doesn't solve all the safety problems associated with nuclear power plants. It may not even provide the final answer on long-term storage of radioactive waste from existing plants.
But it contains a deadline for finding the best possible interim answer to the waste-storage problem, and authority and responsibility for carrying it out. Prompt action is crucial, since some older nuclear plants will begin running out of on-site storage space for spent fuel as early as 1985, and may have to shut down.
In practical terms, the NWPA makes it very likely that by the early 1990s, the United States will have two secure storage sites for the spent nuclear fuel that now is piling up in temporary facilities at power plant sites.
Under the rigid timetable set up by Congress, the Department of Energy (DOE) is to recommend three sites to the President no later than Jan. 1, 1985. He will select two sites for nuclear waste storage - presumably one in the East, one in the West. His first site recommendation must be submitted to Congress no later than March 31, 1987, but there is provision for a one-year delay if necessary. The second site recommendation is due by March 31, 1990. He may recommend additional sites if he wishes.
The act not only requires Congress to act quickly on the President's recommendations, it also contains a provision limiting debate, thus ruling out a filibuster.
The new sites will be for ''monitored, retrievable storage'' of civilian nuclear waste. The material would be kept in them for 50 to 100 years, then either reprocessed or disposed of permanently.
One of the scientists involved in research on nuclear waste storage is Wesley Patrick, a task director in the Earth Sciences Division of the Lawrence Livermore Laboratories in Livermore, Calif. He described, in a recent interview, what has been so far established and what remains to be done in order to enable the President to select storage sites.
''Back in 1978,'' he recalled, ''we were requested by DOE to put together a proposal for tests that could demonstrate the ability to handle, package, store, and retrieve spent nuclear fuel.
''We developed a test for 11 spent-fuel assemblies, commingled them with six electrical simulators, and then spaced heaters on both sides of those to simulate the thermal field that would exist in a huge array of such assemblies - 8,000 to 16,000 cannisters.''
The test took place 1,400 feet underground in a granite chamber at the DOE's Nevada Test Site. It used with spent fuel rods in unaltered form. DOE has since decided that the waste will be in a glassified or ''vitrified'' form - though still highly radioactive.
''Our data do not answer every question imaginable about waste isolation,'' Mr. Patrick said, ''But we did find granite can survive the temperatures and radiation fields that are present when you dispose of spent fuel.''
But, Patrick added, ''one of the key issues which we specifically did not address in our test is how that waste form could dissolve and, over eons of time , get into the ground water and eventually find its way back to biosphere where people live.'' He said more basic research still needs to be done on the water problem and some other matters.
He added that more study is needed on other possible sites - ''say, the Yucca Mountain site (in Nevada) that has tuff rock (a volcanic material), Hanford Reservation (in Washington) with basalt rock, and one of the salt sites (in Louisiana, Mississippi, Texas, and Utah).''
Under the Nuclear Waste Policy Act, Patrick explained, DOE will sink exploratory shafts at each site under consideration and conduct tests to answer all important questions regarding waste isolation.
The Livermore lab and related agencies, he said, are developing an exploratory test program for the Department of Energy's Nevada Test Site. Contracts for similar tests at other sites have been or are being issued by DOE.
But Patrick will not say any one of the several sites under consideration - mostly in Southern and Western states - is superior. Under the law, he points out, the President will make that decision.
NWPA extends to states and Indian reservations the right of veto over use of sites on their land - a veto that can be overridden by a two-thirds vote of either the House or Senate.
After the first site is selected, the NRC must approve construction before Jan. 1, 1989, or three years from the date of application. A similar time frame applies to the second site.
Storage of military nuclear waste in the sites is not ruled out, but the act provides that if defense waste is deposited, the government must pay a share of the cost of constructing and operating the facility.