On Dec. 2, 1942 -- the official birth date of the Atomic Age -- US scientists operated the world's first nuclear reactor in a converted squash court under the stands of the University of Chicago's football stadium. Today, nearly 43 years later, the United States still does not have a satisfactory high-level nuclear-waste disposal system. Atomic-waste disposal poses unique challenges. Radioactive wastes cannot be destroyed. But they do decay naturally: After a million years the toxicity of reactor waste drops to that of the ore from which it was refined. The US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) says a site should be capable of containing the waste for at least 10,000 years.
The currently preferred approach to isolating radioactive wastes is to bury them 2,000 to 3,000 feet underground in a stable geological formation.
The US Department of Energy is in the process of selecting three potential sites. Last December, it issued draft environmental assessments on land in Washington, Nevada, Texas, Utah, Louisiana, and Mississippi. The DOE indicated its preference for sites in Washington, Nevada, and Texas.
If confirmed, the three finalists will be put through a five-year, $500 million detailed study, called site characterization. Then in 1991 the president will pick one as the first high-level nuclear-waste repository.
But public concerns, a general aversion to waste dumps, and a series of misadventures have eroded the goodwill and confidence that marked early government efforts to solve the waste-disposal problem.
Lyons, Kan., was the site of the first waste-disposal experiment, conducted in an atmosphere of goodwill in 1965. Spent reactor fuel and electric heaters were placed in an abandoned salt mine for two years to test the effects of heat and radiation. At the time, these salt formations were considered the most suitable for holding radioactive waste.
Then in 1969, a fire at a nuclear-weapons plant in Rocky Flats, Colo., left a large amount of low-level, plutonium-contaminated waste. This was sent to the National Reactor Test Station in Idaho for storage. But Idaho officials did not want their state to become a dumping ground for out-of-state nuclear waste. They petitioned the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC), which pledged to remove the waste by 1980.
This spurred the commission's first serious search for a waste site. In 1970, it announced that Lyons had been selected, pending tests. AEC officials picked the town because they thought the project would be favorably received. But local opposition became heated when technical problems were revealed. The plan was abandoned two years later.
The late 1970s were a time of major institutional change. The Environmental Protection Agency got involved in setting site standards. The AEC was abolished, its functions divided between the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) and the Energy Research and Development Administration (ERDA), later to be the DOE.
But the reorganization still left the Rocky Flats wastes in need of disposal.
ERDA selected a site near Carlsbad, N.M., for a pilot repository. It was designed for low-level defense waste and, initially, had local support.
Then the government decided to store high-level defense wastes there. It promised the operation would be licensed by the NRC. The New Mexico House rebelled and nearly passed a constitutional amendment banning out-of-state nuclear waste. But the ERDA promised officials that they would have veto rights over the site, which helped defeat the amendment.
Relations worsened when the ERDA recommended storing commercial waste at Carlsbad.
Finally, Congress demolished what remained of the program's credibility by rejecting ERDA's agreements for NRC licensing and the state veto rights.
While this drama was unfolding, ERDA tried for a fresh start: It began a survey of underground geologic formations in 36 states. But this soon bogged down. Some states demanded further studies. Michigan kicked ERDA out altogether. Political opposition and tight budgets reduced the scope of the program. By 1980, active site work was limited to Louisiana, Mississippi, Texas, Utah, Nevada, and Washington.
When the Reagan administration took office in 1981, it declared its support for nuclear power and the ``intent to demonstrate the permanent storage of high-level radioactive waste as soon as possible.''
To achieve this goal, the DOE fostered a spirit of competition between its field offices and their contractors. ``It was generally understood that the first site that developed an adequate data base would get the repository,'' says a DOE official involved. The result: hasty technical work and overly optimistic conclusions. A case in point is the 1982 site characterization report for Hanford, Wash. It was soundly criticized by the NRC, the US Geological Survey, the EPA, and Washington State.
Problems of this sort drove the program deeper into the political mire. Mutual distrust became so intense it ``threatened to lock the waste disposal effort in a state of virtual and continual paralysis,'' according to a recent study by the congressional Office of Technology Assessment (OTA).
This was the setting in which the National Waste Policy Act (NWPA) of 1983 was hammered out. It set a 1998 target for opening the first repository. It funded the program -- estimated at $16 billion to $114 billion through the year 2028 -- with a tax on electricity produced by US nuclear power plants.
``To the degree that a federal law alone can do so, NWPA went a long way toward . . . strengthening the credibility of the federal effort,'' concludes the OTA.
But this optimism appears to be largely confined to Washington: Besides DOE, the only major actor happy with the program is the nuclear industry.
``All in all, they're doing a pretty good job,'' says John Siegal of the Atomic Industrial Forum, the industry trade association.
One controversial aspect of the act is its accelerated schedule. By instructing the DOE to select candidate sites quickly, Congress ensured that the department would pick from among the current candidates. This fueled the perception that the program is driven by politics, not technical excellence.
``The process is rigged: It's prejudged, predetermined, and DOE is just filling in the data to fit,'' charges Robert Loux, who directs Nevada's Radioactive Waste Project.
DOE representatives reply that the NWPA ratified the department's selections and codified its existing administrative procedures. The NRC has approved the DOE's site selection guidelines, but several states and environmental groups have challenged them in court. These suits argue that DOE's process conflicts with the wording in the act, in particular that geological considerations ``shall be primary criteria for the selection of sites.''
Recognizing the explosiveness of this issue, Congress wrote into the act a special consultative role for the states and affected Indian tribes (including a veto that can be overridden only by resolution of both houses of Congress). But this too has become a source of disagreement.
Several state officials complain that the DOE has withheld critical information. Also, the DOE has tried to limit the state's role to one of review: It turned down Nevada's request for money to collect its own geological data. Nevada and Washington have filed suit challenging this decision.
Another wedge between DOE and critics is the nature of the required environmental assessments. ``The EAs are a combination of erroneous information and serious omissions,'' says Steven Frishman, head of Texas' Nuclear Waste Office.
``We've done a lot more than we had to,'' says Roger Hilley, a deputy administrator in the DOE's Office of Civilian Radioactive Waste Management. Most of the errors in the reports are minor and will be corrected in the final versions, he says.
DOE's stance is that if existing information does not disqualify a site, it's fair game for the characterization process, which should clear up any uncertainties and information gaps, DOE officials argue.
Critics say the DOE has viewed existing research with rose-tinted glasses. In general, the NRC staff found the reports ``overly optimistic,'' says Hubert Miller, chief of NRC's Repository Projects Branch.
This pattern convinces David Berick of the Environmental Policy Institute that the DOE is ``trying to avoid political problems by pretending that the technical issues are not there.''
Many people blame DOE for these problems. But Frederick R. Anderson of the University of Utah says the basic process is at fault. A specialist in administrative and constitutional law, he served on an National Academy of Sciences panel on the social and economic aspects of nuclear waste, which issued a report last year.
``Congress adopted an informal and political model for decisionmaking based on the way the government issues grazing permits. It's simply not adequate to handle an issue like nuclear waste, which severely stresses society,'' he says. ``In the US it is not enough to make the right decision,'' he points out. ``The decision must also be made in the right manner.'' First of five articles. Next: a farmland site near Amarillo, Texas. Graph:Projected off-site storage needs for spent reactor fuel (Thousands of metric tons) 70 60 50 40 30 20 10 0 Year 1985 '90 '95 2000 '05 '10 '15 '20 '25 '30 Source: Office of Technology Assessment