Nuclear waste and states' rights

One of the few things that both supporters and opponents of nuclear power agree on is the need for an intelligent way to dispose of nuclear wastes, especially spent fuel from reactors.

Despite the raft of proposals before Congress, passage of a comprehensive plan this session is unlikely. But whatever form the law eventually takes will no doubt impinge on states' rights. And while the states might not want to cope with nuclear waste, they would be better served if they could retain more control of what happens within their borders.

Nuclear wastes pose special problems. They may remain radioactive at least a thousand years and need to be stored in places where contact with humans is unlikely. Some proposals have included putting wastes into geologically stable locations such as the salt formations in Louisiana and New Mexico.

But the chief problem has been the states' unwillingness to have the lethal material within their borders. Nine states have actually passed legislation forbidding the siting of a nuclear dump in their areas. People have wanted the energy source but have been unwilling to pay the price of having the wastes stored next door.

At present, nuclear plants are keeping their spent fuel in "swimming pools" at reactos sites. But space is limited and plants have become increasingly anxious for the government to come up with a permanent solution. Anyone hoping for a quick answer is in for a disappointment. In fact, the Senate bill that seeks to establish a national nuclear policy doesn't require the energy secretary to come up with a permanent plan until Jan. 1, 1985. Note the word "plan." Actually getting a permanent site set up could involve delays well beyond that date.

At least the Senate bill would require the utilities to contribute toward the cost of waste storage. Currently there is no way of knowing just how much disposal of these materials will add to the overall expense of power production. Requiring the companies to foot at least a portion of the bill might give the general public a more accurate picture of just how the cost of nuclear power compares with the other energy options available.

As for states' rights, providing for state participation, while at the same time keeping the wheels of prgress lurching toward a solution, is no easy task.

Thanks to an amendment offered by Senators Glenn (D) of Ohio and PErcy (R) of Illinois, the states will have a limited, but viable, option. If a selected state wishes to protest the siting of a nuclear waste dump, it must persuade one chamber of Congress to support it. But in cases of national security, such as the storage of military wastes, the state must get both the House and the Senate to vote on its behalf.

Ironically, Senators Percy and Glenn wanted to give the states more authority , but they soon found that providing them with an outright veto wouldn't work. Mr. Percy said he was sure the states would "exercise that [veto] power every time, regardless of the merits of a plan. . . . Public anxiety about the problem is that great."

Whether or not the public's fears are sufficient to warrant halting the expansion of nuclear power is open to debate. The vote of confidence for Maine Yankee in a recent referendum seems to be saying that some citizens are less afraid of nuclear plants than they are of being without electricity. Still, even if no new plants were to open, existing reactors will need a place to store their spent fuel on a permanent basis.

A fair solution would be to require those states where reactors are located to set up, with federal assistance, waste storage sites at a central location within their borders. Or to make regional arrangements with nearby state -- though, according to the Constitution, Congress must approve such regional pacts. A "mausoleum" -type facility could be sited anywhere and could be monitored by government agents and plant employees.

Another benefit of the mausoleum method is that the radioactive materials would be accessible if an effective reprocessing plan is ever devised. In fact, recently two scientists at the Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory in California reported a new way to remove hazardous plutonium from living tissues and from nuclear wastes by using a specialized chemical. With this substance, the plutonium in spent fuel could be concentrated in small, easier-to-deal-with chunks.

Military wastes could be farmed out to the sites in states nearest to the place where these materials are produced.

Those that benefit from nuclear power should also pay the price of coping with its altereffects, and those that don't shouldn't have to be responsible just because their states are less populated or developed. Setting up permanent sites in individual states would help to avoid the dangers of shipping wastes over long distances and would also give the local people the chance to take a good hard look at the responsibilities involved in relying on nuclear power.

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