In 1957 National Academy of Sciences warned that radioactive waste disposal "is a major problem in the future growth of the atomic industry." I 1980, more than two decades later, a United States administration has at last set forth a coordinated program for disposal in keeping with the magnitude of the problem.
The question is whether the program will go forward quickly and effectively enough to allow "future growth" of nuclear power in the United States.
The certainty is that the program must go forward to handle the hazardous military and industrial nuclear waste that already exists and will continue to accumulate even if no more nuclear power plants go into operation.
Thus, for the purpose of preparing advice for President Carter's just-announced program, government officials have assumed neatrality on whether to expand nuclear energy -- though, coming from various energy, environmental, and other agencies, they represent a spectrum of opinion on that subject. And the President has laudably decided that wholehearted tackling of the present urgent problem should be the responsibility of this generation and not left, perhaps tragically, to its descendants.
Is there a political element in Mr. Carter's coming out with the plan on the brink of the vote in New Hampshire, where nuclear energy is an issue, and when the Jerry Brown campaign is nagging him on it? We doubt that Mr. Carter, with his demonstrated concern for nuclear matters, both foreign and domestic, would need that kind of nudge on such an overriding safety issue. Yet it had seemed hardly excusable for him to take so long to outline action after the massive 1978 report to him by the Interagency Review Group on Nuclear Waste Management.
Beyond any incidental partisan political dividends for finally launching the waste management effort -- or political criticism of its elements -- he has taken a step toward meeting public doubts and fears about the nuclear enterprise. (Just between 1978 and spring at last year, according to a national survey, those believing the nuclear waste problem could be solved had dropped from 53 percent to 38 percent.) The program now must be carried out in a way to build public confidence.
This does not mean rushing along uncertain avenues. Indeed, Mr. Carter wins points for deciding to cancel a military-waste pilot project in New Mexico that had apparently been gone into too hastily. What is needed is a consistent policy of bringing the public into the informational and decisionmaking process with the kind of candor that is now beginning to be displayed.
The Interagency Review Group's operation was encouraging. It brought together people inside and outside the government, with hearings for the public.
Yet flaws appeared in providing advance notice about hearings, in eliciting various points of view fairly when some were those of groups with plenty of money to prepare them and others were not, and in assuring participants that their views had actually been taken into consideration and not just suffered for political window dressing. A recent Harvard study for the Energy Research and Development Administration suggests that funds for public participation might be made available on some sort of proportional representation basis. The polarizing of nuclear vs. antinuclear voices might be reduced through efforts to involve middle-of-the-road groups and individual voices.
One promising part of the Carter plan is formation of a state planning council for advice from governors and other elected officials on waste management issues. The siting of repositories for the waste, whose radioactivity takes long periods of time to fade, will require informed cooperation by the states involved. The proposed broadening of licensing of sites by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission also ought to bolster confidence.
The program valuably dispels the myth that the technology is already available and only political, economic, and social considerations remain. These latter considerations are important, but technical questions persist. The farthest the administration goes is to state a technical consensus that "no insurmountable barriers are known" to prevent permanent disposal of the waste.
Meanwhile, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission has the task of determining whether it has confidence that indeed the wastes can be disposed of safety. It is a note of caution that helps explain why, even after all these years of nuclear weapons and energy, the difficulty of making and implementing right choices pushes the estimated date of the first full-scale opertional repository to the middle of hte 1990s.