BOSTON — ONE of the conundrums of the nuclear age has been finding a place to store thousands of tons of highly radioactive spent fuel from nuclear-power plants around the country.
When House and Senate conferees meet today to iron out their differences over spending plans for energy and water programs, they are expected to take up a controversial provision to establish an interim storage facility for high-level nuclear waste by 1998. The provision also would cut substantially the US Department of Energy's money for research on a permanent disposal site at Yucca Mountain in Nevada.
The measure, added to the Energy and Water Development Appropriations Act by Sens. Pete Domenici (R) of New Mexico and Bennett Johnston (D) of Louisiana, is the latest in a series of attempts by lawmakers to deal with the waste issue this session.
''The general consensus on the Hill is that DOE should be obligated to take the waste in 1998,'' as many say the law requires, says a congressional staff member. ''But it's not going to do it.'' Several conferees ''are very frustrated with the idea of spending money in 1996 for a program that is not solving the problem.''
That frustration is shared by nuclear utilities. They point out that the Nuclear Waste Policy Act of 1982 charged DOE with siting and building a permanent repository by 1998. A 1987 amendment to the NWPA focused federal attention on Yucca Mountain as the prospective site. Yet current estimates hold that should it prove suitable, Yucca Mountain will not be ready to take spent fuel until 2010.
Meanwhile, spent fuel is piling up in temporary storage pools or in above-ground casks at nuclear-power plants that were designed with the assumption that the government would reprocess fuel. And rate payers have paid $11 billion into the Nuclear Waste Fund, set up to pay for the program, of which only about $5 billion has been spent.
As written, the NWPA also prevents siting an interim facility until after a permanent disposal site had been picked. This is the roadblock that state and national lawmakers are trying to remove.
The nuclear industry's preferred approach to opening an interim storage site is embodied in a bill sponsored by Rep. Fred Upton (R) of Michigan. His legislation would unambiguously establish DOE's responsibility to take spent fuel in '98 and outlines a comprehensive program for doing so. His measure also would give DOE enough money from the Nuclear Waste Fund to build an interim site as well as conduct a full program of studies on Yucca Mountain as a permanent repository. Late last week, the House Resources Committee passed the measure to the full House for consideration.
''The Upton bill is a comprehensive expression of congressional intent'' on the issue, says Daniel Dreyfus, director of DOE's Office of Civilian Radioactive Waste Management.
But the bill has two drawbacks, he adds. Congress is in no mood to give DOE the money needed to implement Upton's agenda, and even if it did, ''the transportation fleet doesn't exist and couldn't be created'' between now and 1998 to get the spent fuel from power plants to a storage site.
Aside from this, Upton's and similar measures could to run into problems in the Senate.
GOP staffers say that Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee chairman Frank Murkowski (R) of Alaska, concerned about ensuring passage of his legislation to open the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil exploration, has let it be known that nuclear- waste bills are unlikely to get an airing until next spring - well into an election year. Given lawmakers' aversion to handling hot topics in an election year, the issue could get pushed off into 1997, only a year before the DOE is supposed to start taking spent fuel.
''This is why it was necessary to do something on the energy and water appropriations bill,'' says a Senate staffer.
Critics, however, counter that the sense of urgency is artificial, and that current techniques, such as dry-cask storage at power plants, are sufficient to deal with the problem until a permanent storage site can be selected. Last week, 11 public-interest and antinuclear groups from around the country formed the Nuclear Waste Citizens Coalition to fight the efforts in Congress to site an interim storage facility.
''You don't solve the problem at Prairie Island [nuclear plant] by shipping waste to Shoshone land,'' says Mary Olson, with the Nuclear Information and Resource Service in Washington, D.C., a coalition member. ''Our real goal is to have a dialogue about nuclear power. We're saying that the continued production of radioactive waste is no way to solve the problem and that it's time for people not vested in producing the waste to reevaluate these programs.''