WHAT'S wrong with Washington's oversight of nuclear safety? The nuclear-energy industry's many troubles, though due mainly to private-management errors such as those that contributed to Three Mile Island and to antinuclear activism, have been compounded by the perception that the public watchdogs have become industry lapdogs. And we're just beginning to comprehend the depth of the safety and environmental problems at America's neglected nuclear-weapons plants.
Now, the Department of Energy has announced that it must start all over in its efforts to establish a safe permanent repository for the nation's mounting stock of nuclear waste. DOE acknowledges that its research procedures were unreliable; this means that it will be well into the next century before the US can confidently bury its radioactive residue.
In 1982 Congress directed DOE to search for a permanent burying place for spent reactor rods and weapons-plant waste. But political resistance arose to studying Northeast granite shields and Gulf Coast salt formations as possible repositories, so in 1987 Congress ordered DOE to focus all its efforts on Yucca Mountain, a volcanic-ash formation in western Nevada.
Two years and $500 million later, DOE confesses that, as critics have charged, it never had ``a good, scientifically sound plan'' for exploring the geology of the mountain. It will start afresh.
It's far better, of course, that DOE admit to error in a matter of such importance than that it proceed along a dangerous course to save face or funds. Still, one must ask, why did it come to this? Surely the government should have been able to devise a prudent, acceptable plan for disposing of deadly wastes that need to be isolated from human beings for at least 10,000 years.
DOE isn't alone in fumbling the ball. The Environmental Protection Agency has been developing performance standards for underground repositories; but in 1987 a US judge threw out EPA's standards and sent the agency back to the drawing board.
Congress should probe these agencies' failures. And Congress should not spare itself from blame to the extent that political pressures on the regulators contributed to the lapses.
Some critics think DOE should return to a search of several sites, rather than leave all its eggs in Nevada. A two-track plan might be advisable. Some effort and money should be devoted to identifying backup sites, while the main exploration - along ``scientifically sound'' lines - continues at Yucca Mountain. Despite questions about potential, though unlikely, volcanic and earthquake activity near the mountain, experts still think it could be the right choice for a repository.
America's temporary storage of nuclear waste hasn't reached the crisis point, and there's still time for the government to do the job of finding a permanent facility right. But this late in the game, fumbles, penalties, and blown assignments are ever more costly.