Since the dawn of the Atomic Age, the US government has handled the nuclear waste problem as though it were a wad of chewing gum stuck in a finicky relative's favorite living room rug.
At first, government officials and politicians tried to ignore it: They severely underfunded waste management efforts. When that didn't work, they began looking for an easy place to hide it and were surprised at the public outcry that resulted.
At last they turned over the problem to experts - the technocrats. They treated it as a purely technical matter and, as a result, fell prey to the larger social, ethical, and political aspects of the issue.
In the last decade, the federal government has been trying to take its responsibility for nuclear waste disposal more seriously. But because the issue has become a political hot potato, each US president has felt obligated to give it new direction. The result has been a zig-zagged course with progress toward a solution slowed to a crawl, while the inventory of highly radioactive waste produced by the nation's commercial reactors continues to mount.
Now, however, it appears that Congress is preparing legislation that would add some stability to the nation's radioactive waste program. And, despite the tremendous controversy and polarization that has marked past legislative efforts , the congressional Office of Technology Assessment (OTA), in a report released April 27, outlines an approach its researchers believe would elicit support from the general public and from organizations with special interest in the issue.
''It was a surprise. We didn't expect to be able to identify a set of policy options which could be broadly supported,'' acknowledges Tom Cotton of OTA.
The biggest obstacle facing the nuclear waste program, because of its history , is a lack of credibility, the report stated. In addition, OTA researchers have concluded:
* The nuclear industry doubts the federal government can stick to a policy for more than four years.
* Environmentalists are convinced that the government will not deal adequately with safety issues.
* Many state and local officials are suspicious that the Department of Energy is not dealing fairly with them.
Fortunately, there are no fundamental technical problems to designing a safe nuclear waste management system, they report.
The OTA prescription involves several steps. First, the administration and Congress would have to agree on a binding management plan - which would lay out a specific program and set a firm schedule for development of nuclear waste depositories - to be written into law. Program plans would include a nationwide survey for possible disposal sites and would set a stretched-out timetable to give the program ample time to be developed. A new, independent federal agency would implement the program, which would be funded directly by user fees levied on the nuclear industry. This agency would be subject to periodic congressional review, but would be isolated from the annual budget cycle. Plans for state, local, and public involvement would be spelled out.
''It's a typical good news/bad news situation. The good news is that we can identify something with a broad consensus. The bad news is that, if they want to get this, there are some tough institutional bullets which Congress and the administration must bite,'' says Mr. Cotton.
Bits and pieces of the plan already have been incorporated into pending Senate and House nuclear waste legislation.
The concept of funding the program with user fees has been widely accepted on Capitol Hill and by industry. The fees are expected to add less than 5 percent to the price of electricity generated by the nation's commercial nuclear reactors. However, lawmakers seem inclined to set the level of the fees before they decide how to spend it, rather than the other way around. They also appear reluctant to free the program from the annual budget process.
Currently, the debate centers on how quickly repositories should be developed. Those who feel the technical problems have been solved are pushing for a rapidly paced program. This disturbs environmentalists and nuclear critics who feel safety may be given short shrift.
After four years of study, OTA researchers concluded that a fixed schedule is more important to the nuclear industry than an early completion date. Therefore, industry leaders can support a program 10 years in the making if they are certain the problems will be resolved by then. If the industry is to count on a long-term plan, more repository sites need to be investigated and more technology options included.
Incorporating these additions into the program would go a long way toward addressing environmentalist concerns. Looking at more sites has the additional benefit of reassuring local citizens worried that their community might be chosen for a waste site on the basis of political expediency rather than careful deliberation.
''Any waste management policy that is likely to endure must be both acceptable and credible to all concerned parties,'' the OTA report states. When the the final draft of radioactive waste legislation emerges from Congress, it will measure the degree to which the pro- and antinuclear forces have acknowledged this reality.