Congress has ruled that by Jan. 1, 1986, each state must have a place where it can safely dispose of the low-level radioactive waste produced within its borders.
There are now three low-level waste disposal sites to serve the entire country: Barnwell, S.C.; Hanford, Wash.; and Barry, Nev. But the sites are filling up, and governors in these states, unwilling to provide dumping grounds indefinitely, prompted the congressional call for change.
Congress has suggested that states form regional compacts, so that sites won't proliferate in every state. Some regions are making progress. But there is now no possibility that the New England states can meet the congressional deadline.
Representatives from the Northeast - the New England states plus New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Maryland, and Delaware - have been negotiating for months to form a regional compact. But there's a sticking point in the discussions: No state wants to be the permanent dumping ground for the low-level radioactive waste produced in the region.
Low-level radioactive waste is defined by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission by what it is not: It's not high-level waste, spent reactor fuel, and other very hazardous substances. The vague definition has caused concern among environmental groups. The Sierra Club says that while the radioactivity of some contaminated substances decays to a safe level within weeks or months, other substances classified as low-level remain highly radioactive for thousands of years.
But W. David Stephenson of NELRAD, a consortium of radioactive materials users, says these materials can be disposed of safely. And he points out that low-level waste is not related to nuclear weapons production.
He says low-level radioactive waste is a byproduct of research experiments, hospital care, industrial processes, maintenance programs at nuclear power plants, and the like. It includes contaminated hospital clothing and tools, sludge from nuclear reactors, carcasses of animals used in experiments, and worn-out machine parts from academic research reactors.
Mr. Stephenson says many firms which produce this waste are vital to the region's economy. He cautions that unless the Northeast comes up with a solution for waste disposal, some industries, nuclear power plants, hospitals, and academic institutions could be forced to curtail activities - or in extreme cases, shut down altogether.
Massachusetts is the nation's largest producer of low-level radioactive waste. Even so, the state did not ratify a compact drawn up last year under the Coalition of Northeastern Governors. State Sen. Carol C. Amick, co-chairman of the Massachusetts Special Legislative Commission on Low-Level Radioactive Waste, says the CONEG compact needed too much revision. Instead, her commission has a drafted a compact proposal of its own, which it hopes will meet with the approval of other Northeast states.
Senator Amick says that even if Massachusetts agrees to host a disposal site, ''we do not want to be the host site in perpetuity.'' Another state would have to assure that it would host a second site 20 years down the road, she says.
Massachusetts is in a tough position. For a number of reasons, it seems to have the fewest options for making progress in locating a waste facility.
In 1980, voters passed ''Question 3,'' a bill requiring a statewide referendum before a new nuclear power plant can be built here; before the state can an enter into any regional waste-siting compact; or before a radioactive disposal site can be set up on Bay State soil.
Amy Goldsmith, director of the Massachusetts Nuclear Referendum Committee, which sponsored the referendum, says the law provides an important protection.
''It is not a barrier to siting a disposal facility,'' she says. ''We're not arguing the lack of need. We are committed to finding a safe and sound solution.'' But, she says, the group's position is that ''voter approval is a nonnegotiable issue.''
Allen Davis of the Boston Edison Company says the law is probably unconstitutional. He says it is will be struck down just as soon as it's tested.
But Ms. Goldsmith says ''constitutional lawyers helped write the law,'' and she believes it would hold up in court. ''Industry can go and challenge it,'' she says, ''but it is a law, and the state has to defend it.'' The law could be amended by the legislature, but ''if that were to happen,'' she threatens, ''there would be quite a ruckus.''
States negotiating with Massachusetts see the law as an obstruction. A referendum will not make it on the ballot in time for this year's election, so the earliest opportunity for citizens to vote on a regional compact is the election in November 1986. That's 11 months after the deadline set by Congress.
Delegates from many Northeast states met last week on the gently swaying barge ''Discovery,'' moored at the New England Aquarium. While sea lions and dolphins frolicked in their crowd-pleasing shows one floor below, the representatives discussed the establishment of a radioactive-waste site in the region.
All 11 states had previously participated in the CONEG negotiations, aimed at siting a waste facility somewhere in the region. Yet only four states - Connecticut, New Jersey, Maryland, and Delaware - have ratified the CONEG compact.
New Hampshire, Vermont, and Maine did not join because the compact affords them no assurance that their states won't be the host state for the waste facility, says New Hampshire state Rep. Phoebe Chardon.
The three states generate very small amounts of low-level waste, she says. Officials there don't think it's reasonable for states that generate a lot of waste (Massachusetts, New York, and Pennsylvania) to eye these northernmost states for the dump site.
New Hampshire state Rep. Mary Chambers says, ''The bottom line is that the little states do not trust the big states.'' None has the expertise to run a large regional facility, she says, but the three remote states - with their small populations and large land area - ''must look awfully attractive.
''If you can come up with a mechanism that assures us that we're not going to be a dumping ground for the Northeast's waste,'' she adds, ''something might move.''
Vermont, New Hampshire, and Maine have considered forming their own compact to ensure they will not be imposed upon by their southern neighbors.
Rhode Island, which also generates a small amount of waste, has the same concerns. Dante Ionata of the governor's office says Rhode Island is ''afraid of being required to take in thousands of times'' as much waste as it produces. Yet he thinks the state will ratify the CONEG compact next year. ''There are no better options at hand,'' he says.
Massachusetts Senator Amick says two new ideas surfaced at the meeting last week. Both were greeted with enthusiasm.
Rotating the dump site. Delegates proposed rotating the facility among the states that generate the most waste. One state, say Massachusetts, would host a disposal site for 20 years, then another would take on the burden for the next 20 years.
A small facility for ''hot'' waste.
Al Boright of the New Hampshire legislative staff suggested that states that generate small amounts of waste could host a small site. The facility could handle ''the hottest'' waste - substances that will remain radioactive for thousands of years. This type accounts for about 1 percent of the total low-level waste produced in the Northeast.
Senator Amick said she was encouraged by this proposal: ''It's the first time I've heard representatives from the small states offer to share any portion of the burden.''
Even so, she and others concede it's still the responsibility of major waste-producing states to come up with the core of the solution. Rep. Arnie Wight of New Hampshire says, ''The small states are not in a position to take the initiative. We are hoping the three key players will make a proposal we can accept.''
None of the three - Massachusetts, New York, or Pennsylvania - appears ready to host a site.
New York, like Massachusetts, has appointed an advisory committee to study its options. A draft of the commission's report recommends that New York not join the CONEG compact, says Frank Murray of Gov. Mario Cuomo's office.
''New York sees (the CONEG compact) weighted toward New York being selected, '' he says. ''Pennsylvania and Massachusetts see it the same way toward themselves.''
Senator Amick says she will try to break this impasse within the next few weeks by initiating discussions with representatives from New York and Pennsylvania.
Stephenson of NELRAD points out that nuclear-materials users are making great strides to to reduce the amount of waste they produce. Massachusetts generated more than 300,000 cubic feet of waste last year. But the state predicts that figure will fall to 92,000 cubic feet by 1987.
As of 1986, the disposal facilities in Washington, South Carolina, and Nevada will be legally allowed to refuse waste from any state that is not a member of their regional compacts. These states have shown a willingness to keep their doors open a little longer, on the condition that other states show a ''good faith effort'' to siting facilities of their own.