Storing Nuclear Waste

IDAHO Gov. Cecil Andrus recently turned a spotlight on a nuclear waste disposal problem that specifically affects his state and several others, but is in fact of major national concern: storage of radioactive residue from submarines and surface vessels that patrol the oceans in the effort to preserve peace.

What started as "temporary" storage (some critics call it "dumping") of radioactive waste has been going on for 50 years in Idaho and Washington.

The waste has seeped into soil and water in those two states.

One Environmental Protection Agency official described the situation as "an unprecedented legacy of environmental contamination."

Two permanent underground facilities for storing atomic residue - one in New Mexico and another in Nevada - are nearing completion and are ready for testing, but controversy over their long-range practicality and safety continues.

Meanwhile, radioactive residue continues to pile up in temporary facilities such as the Idaho National Engineering Laboratory, a 890-square-mile facility. On June 28 federal district court Judge Harold Ryan, responding to concern expressed by Governor Andrus and others, ruled that the United States Department of Energy was violating environmental regulations requiring studies to determine if the storage of the nuclear residue could adversely affect the environment or public health.

US Navy officials turned to the Senate Armed Forces Committee for help, and they got it - at first. A subcommittee approved a one-year exemption from the court's decision.

But then something significant happened. The full Armed Forces Committee - challenged by Andrus, US Sen. Dirk Kempthorne (R) of Idaho, and other Senate members - reversed the decision.

Next, Hazel O'Leary, the Clinton administration's new secretary of energy, a staunch advocate of environmental protection, joined the Andrus cause.

These developments seem to signify that in Congress, in affected states, in the military and the courts, and among Americans generally, this "genie in the bottle" problem should no longer be seen as someone else's responsibility.

This doesn't mean that the problem of use and storage of radioactive substances will quickly be solved, but it remains urgent that this challenge be confronted.

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