Northeast lags behind in finding site for low-level nuclear waste

Everyone appears to be acting in good faith. Nobody doubts that a site for disposing of the growing quantities of low-level nuclear waste here in the Northeast will eventually be found.

But the clock is inexorably winding down on the problem. And progress toward a solution seems almost imperceptible, especially in New England. Thoughtful participants and observers are growing increasingly uneasy.

The federal deadline for states to figure out how and where to dispose of their low-level nuclear wastes is now just two years away. By all current indications, the Northeast isn't going to meet it - at least, not fully.

''Panic is not the word I'd use. Concern is,'' says Mary Hart, chief negotiator for the grouping of Northeastern states formed to address the problem.

Low-level waste ranges from sludges and residues left over from nuclear power generation to used gowns, gloves, shoe covers, packaging materials, and the like used in research laboratories. The Northeast is loaded with atomic power plants, with more on the way. It also is a leader in the research and production of nuclear medical treatments.

Under terms of the federal Low-Level Waste Policy Act of 1980, the states have until Jan. 1, 1986, to come up with their own means of disposing of such waste. Congress, with the larger issue of high-level nuclear waste disposal still unresolved, doesn't want to have to extend the deadline.

Of greater urgency at the moment, states that have not yet ratified one of the six regional compacts formed for purpose of low-level waste disposal have only until next summer to do so. After that, their would-be partners will go ahead without them and they'll have to apply for membership.

To date, only four states (Connecticut, New Jersey, Delaware, and Maryland) have joined the projected 11-states Northeast Compact, and only one (Connecticut) is in New England. Three others - New York, Pennsylvania, and Rhode Island - may join early next year. The remaining nonmember states are all in New England: Maine, Vermont, New Hampshire, and Massachusetts.

Nor has the Northeast Compact yet been submitted to Congress for the necessary go-ahead. All other regional compacts except the Midwest's already are before Congress.

Ms. Hart says the Northeast compact would prefer to wait until all prospective members are aboard before seeking congressional approval.

Each state, by joining a compact, signals its willingness to provide a dumpsite should it be selected as the host. Conveniently for the Northwest, Rocky Mountain, and Southeast compacts, there are existing sites at Hanford, Wash., Beatty, Nevada, and Barnwell, S.C., ready to serve that purpose. It is those sites, in fact, that precipitated the federal law by appealing for relief from having to continue accepting the wastes of other states that were unwilling to dispose of their own.

But here in New England there are problems in getting states to agree on whether to join. Massachusetts has a recently approved law that imposes binding preconditions on the state's entry into a regional compact as well as on the siting of a waste facility here.

Massachusetts government officials say they expect the state to join ''some compact'' eventually. But while Massachusetts will be the largest generator of waste in the region by 1986, the environmental lobby here is strong and vocal. The referendum governing the waste-disposal issue passed by a 2-to-1 margin last year.

''There's no question that Massachusetts is trying awfully hard,'' says Holmes Brown, who tracks the issue for the National Governors' Association. ''But that doesn't satisfy the folks in South Carolina very much.''

Maine, New Hampshire, and Vermont, meanwhile, are exploring the possibility of forming their own minicompact - although one New Hampshire state official concedes ''there isn't a whole lot of time to do this.'' At the moment, they are bogged down over the projected cost of developing a site - $7 million.

''We feel that we've made good progress,'' Ms. Hart says. ''Every state has got its own concerns. There are a lot of deals that could have been struck if we'd met behind closed doors, but we chose to have legislative involvement in the process.''

Still, she concedes, ''We will not have a disposal site in the Northeast by 1986.''

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