San Francisco — One ''scientific fact'' about a nuclear waste dump is that it must be located in some congressional district. Surveys have repeatedly shown that the American public wants the nuclear waste problem solved. Still, the efforts of the Department of Energy (DOE) to find a burial site for the burgeoning backlog of spent fuel from the nation's growing number of commercial nuclear reactors has proven perennially controversial.
Now local opposition in a number of states appears to be stiffening as the process moves into a critical stage: the selection next year of three sites, one of which will ultimately become the first depository of high-level commercial nuclear waste in the United States.
Since its inception, the DOE has portrayed its site-selection process as objective and scientific. Using what it claims are purely technical criteria, the department chose nine sites in five states: Texas, Washington, Nevada, Utah, Louisiana, and Mississippi.
But many opponents have been convinced that politics, rather than science, was responsible for considering a spot in their neighborhoods.
This view has been given new currency by comments attributed to US Energy Secretary Donald Hodel during a campaign swing in Texas in September.
Copies of a local Associated Press report on the secretary's speech are being widely circulated among environmental and antinuclear groups around the country. According to the report, Mr. Hodel remarked that the two Texas sites being studied would probably not be picked because of local public opposition and the influence of the Texas congressional delegation.
''This kind of blatant political pandering confirms our worst suspicions about the political nature of the federal program,'' responded Caroline Petti of the Environmental Policy Institute.
Texas Gov. Mark White also expressed disappointment that the site-selection process has been politicized. ''We need to know whether they're going to make a decision based on scientific data or based on politics,'' he said.
As a result, he has demanded that the federal government start its site-selection process again, from scratch - a demand unlikely to receive serious consideration because of the tight deadlines imposed by Congress.
''People here are very concerned about the secretary's remarks. They are afraid that our congressional delegation is the weakest political link,'' confirms Judith Hinchman, coordinator of Utah's nuclear-waste program.
Opposition in her state has been particularly strong because the site DOE chose sits within three miles of the boundary of Canyonlands National Park. While the agency maintained the site was chosen using purely technical criteria, state opponents suspect that it was picked because local county commissioners wrote the Energy Department soliciting such a facility.
According to Robert Odle, the DOE's deputy assistant for intergovernmental relations, the energy secretary was simply making the point that the agency will take local sentiment into account, particularly in the latter phases of the process.
This, he says, should come as no surprise: Under current law, states will be able to veto the selection of a waste dump within their boundaries.
Regardless of what Mr. Hodel said, his reported comments appear to have fueled a controversy that is certain to break out in full force next year, when the DOE announces its choices for the preliminary nuclear-waste disposal sites.