In recommending that the United States consider dumping mildly radioactive waste at sea, a scientific advisory commission has raised a question that already has spurred global controversy.
Is it safe to put such wastes in the ocean even though they represent only a tiny fraction of the radioactive material being added from natural sources?
The United States has been a bystander in this debate since it stopped all such dumping 14 years ago. However, some other nations, especially in Western Europe, have continued the practice. This has aroused such concern that the international agency that sets the deep-sea dumping rules - the 53-member London Dumping Convention - has placed a moratorium on such disposal until September 1985, while a scientific commission studies its safety.
Thus, the report being released by the National Advisory Committee on Oceans and the Atmosphere (NACOA) is more a contribution to the ongoing study of sea disposal than a basis for independent US action.
Indeed, there is little incentive for such action. International moratorium or not, the US nuclear industry simply isn't interested. Scott Peters, a spokesman for the industry's Atomic Industrial Forum, says ocean dumping of radioactive waste ''is not an issue in this country.'' The nuclear industry ''is not interested,'' because it is considered ''politically impossible,'' he explained.
Even the Defense Department has withdrawn tentative plans to scuttle old nuclear submarines. The Navy now says it will store the radioactive junk on land.
But in Western Europe, sea disposal of low-level radioactive wastes is a lively issue. Two different types of disposal are involved.
Much low-level waste consists of such items as contaminated clothing or instruments. This waste is packaged in drums and dumped at a designated site in the North Atlantic 800 kilometers from the northwest tip of Spain where the water is 4 kilometers deep. Wastes from Britain, France, and to a lesser extent other nations such as Switzerland and Belgium, have ended up there.
Britain and France also discharge directly into coastal waters highly diluted radioactive effluent from nuclear fuel reprocessing plants at Sellafield (formerly Windscale) and Cap La Hague respectively. There is no moratorium on these discharges.
Most experts used to consider both types of disposal to be safe. But they have become increasingly suspect.
No one knows whether or not material concentrated in deep-sea dumps will leak and enter the food chain. Many experts would agree with the NACOA report that the ''chances of radioactivity finding its way into the food we eat are minimal ... if care is used in choosing an ocean site.'' But critics would emphasize NACOA's reservation that the ''track record of the experts in managing the radioactive waste problem in the past - and in keeping the public properly informed - does not instill confidence in their present management schemes.''
Given the uncertainties, there is widespread opposition to the dumping. For example, when Britain decided to ignore the moratorium last year, the National Union of Seafarers forced compliance. Japan last year dropped plans to deposit 92 million liters (22 million gallons) of low-level waste in the Pacific Ocean, bowing to opposition from inhabitants of the Mariana Islands.
Britain's Sellafield discharges have also come under heavy criticism. Last month, Sir Denys Wilkinson - former chairman of the government's Radioactive Waste Management Advisory Committee - said radiation exposure to some people because of Sellafield discharges is ''higher than one would like it to be.'' He referred to the ''uncooperative attitude'' of the Irish Sea, which returns radioisotopes to land instead of flushing them into the Atlantic. This is a bigger problem than was anticipated.
Sellafield is compared unfavorably to the French plant, which releases far less radioactivity. British Nuclear Fuels - the government company that runs Sellafield - has announced a $130 million study to find ways to reduce its own discharges.