The US Congress had hoped to shift the care of low-level radioactive waste to the states by 1986. Now the congressional General Accounting Office (GAO) says there's no way to meet the target date.
This means that one of the thorniest, albeit secondary, issues of the nuclear age - what to do with mildly radioactive trash - still is far from resolution.
This trash consists of discarded tools, protective clothes, cleaning fluids, and other contaminated paraphernalia. It's a by-product of the use of radioactive isotopes in scientific research, in medicine, and in the manufacture of items such as smoke detectors or luminous watch dials that incorporate radioisotopes.
The United States annually generates 90,000 cubic meters of this waste from over 20,000 laboratories, hospitals, factories, and nuclear power plants. That's enough to fill 433,000 55-gallon drums.
It's far less dangerous than the ''hot'' wastes from nuclear fuel or bombmaking, which must be isolated for thousands of years. But low-level waste must be stored safely for periods ranging from decades to centuries.
In the past decade, radioisotope users have strained the limits of the three national commercial disposal sites - Barnwell, S.C.; Beatty, Nev.; and Richland, Wash. Realising this, Congress passed the Low-Level Radioactive Waste Policy Act in 1980. This shifts the waste-disposal responsibility to the states. A state can establish its own site or can join in a regional group to establish a common facility, with a target date of 1986. The law's ''teeth'' are set in the provision that, once such groups are formed, approved by Congress, and operating , they can exclude outside states from their facilities beginning in 1986. States handy to one of the three existing facilities already are forming groups. This raises the threat that outside states may soon have no place to dump.
Despite this added sense of urgency, many states still can't get their act together. Besides facing local opposition to specific sites, officials of such states often are uncertain whether to go ahead on their own - like California and Texas - or to join a regional group.
Thus the GAO, in a study released this month, warns Congress that the 1986 target is unrealistic. It says it would be unwise for the federal government to take over some of the disposal burden or otherwise to ease the pressure for state action. But the states do need help.
The GAO notes that state groups that plan to operate the three existing sites may continue to accomodate outsiders after 1986 if the need is urgent. Perhaps, also, permission could be given to warehouse some of the wastes temporarily. Such measures would ease the disposal crunch. Meanwhile, the GAO says, the states need federal help to form regional groups and resolve technical problems.
Low-level waste lacks the drama of a Three Mile Island emergency. But the pressure its accumulation is putting on many states could produce a serious crisis within the next few years.