President Carter is proposing a broad examination of the country's geology to determine where the safest location -- or two locations -- may be for the permanent interment of atomic waste. Mr. Carter told Congress Feb. 12 that under his plan he would, by 1985, select a repository for high-level waste from among 11 potential sites.
The President's new plan to manage nuclear waste is prompted by the pressing need to defuse an environmental and political time bomb.
Since the dawn of the nuclear age in the 1940s, relatively few cities and states in the United States have allowed the federal government to use their land for nuclear waste storage. In the past five years, most of the primary disposal sites off federal land have curtailed operations or closed their doors to new waste.
Meanwhile, the nation's 70 licensed nuclear power plants -- as well as radioactive waste producers such as laboratories, hospitals, and the military -- have been generating increasing amounts of high-level and low-level atomic waste. By the year 2000, the US Department of Energy (DOE) estimates, federally generated low-level wastes alone are expected to increase from two-to-five-fold.
The proposed repository would be operational by the mid-1990s. Likely candidates are the Jackass Flats, Nev., atomic test site; the military waste site on the Hanford reservation in Washington State, and eight underground salt domes in Mississippi, Louisiana, and Texas.
Mr. Carter also asked that by 1983 at least one federally managed repository for spent atomic fuel be chosen. Likely locations are the existing low-level facilities at Barnwell, S.C.; Morris, Ill., and West Valley, N.Y.
Utility companies, which are storing most of their own waste on-site, would be charged for depositing radioactive material at this new facility. The DOE estimates that this development alone could add 10 percent to the present consumer bill for electricity.
A controversial military nuclear waste site being developed near Carisbad, N.M., would be phased out under the President's program. Almost $90 million ready has been spent on the pilot project, but tests at Carlsbad showed that the geology was not as stable as first believed.
Since the early 1970s, atomic energy officials have met with a series of public relations setbacks, climaxed almost one year ago by the Three Mile Island incident in Pennsylvania. In this same period, citizens' groups stepped up their fight against government and business efforts to set up waste sites. "If this country cannot deal responsibly with its wastes," warned DOE undersecretary John Deutch at a briefing on the new program, "then we will have a real problem with the continuation of the nuclear program."
Environmentalists have been concerned over a proposal by Sen. J. Bennett Johnston (D) of Louisiana that would have created a "fast track" method -- that is, federal override authority -- for overcoming local objections to waste sites. Dave Berrick of the Environmental Policy Center says the President's plan presents an alternative environmentalists can "live with."
Presidential science adviser Frank Press says past public reticence to deal with the waste problem was caused by inadequate governmental research and management.
The President also moved to enlist state cooperation by issuing an executive order creating a State Planning Council to advise the administration and Congress on planning, locating, and constructing waste facilities.