Time to Pay the Piper

ACHIEVEMENTS like splitting the atom and developing useful chemical products usually come with a price tag. Actually, three price tags: one for the cost of research and development, another for production and distribution, and the third for dealing with byproducts and side effects - which may not be known, or acknowledged, prior to production and use.

The bills now are coming due for a couple of these 20th century wonders: nuclear power and chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs).

A recent scientific report indicates that the ozone layer - which protects Earth's inhabitants from possibly harmful radiation - may become thinner than expected sooner than expected, and in an unexpected area.

Meanwhile, a significant step toward solving the problem of how to safely store radioactive nuclear waste is awaiting approval by Congress and the State of New Mexico. A federal judge has issued an injunction prohibiting the United States Department of Energy (DOE) from beginning storage of nuclear waste in a repository there until Congress and New Mexico approve. The waste, from plutonium bombs, would be stored in a salt formation 2,150 feet below the surface. DOE officials say the 4,000 to 8,000 barrel s of waste could be removed if the site were found not to be suitable. The judge disagrees.

For more than two decades suitable methods and locations for storing radioactive waste have been sought. Meanwhile, nuclear waste continues to be held at sites that are conceded to be unfit.

Environmentalists are split on this one. For instance, the Natural Resources Defense Council wants to block opening of the New Mexico facility, but a spokesman for the Environmental Defense Fund said that once the DOE complies with all relevant laws and regulations, "it is the department's right to load waste" in the New Mexico repository.

Certainly, the time has come for decisive action on the ever-lingering nuclear waste issue.

The Bush administration, to its credit, took such action on the ozone question recently. The president ordered quicker implementation of a phaseout of CFCs, the common industrial coolants and solvents known to be the chief contributors to ozone depletion. The US Senate had earlier voted for a similar speedup.

What helped impel this action was the discovery by researchers of what they believe is an Arctic ozone hole similar to the one detected some years ago over the Antarctic. Although they cannot say precisely when the hole may appear, they expect a significant ozone loss in the current decade. And this newly detected area of ozone loss is much closer to densely inhabited areas than is the Antarctic hole.

Getting rid of CFCs more quickly will cost consumers something: A lot of appliances may have to be junked and replaced, and some of those convenient spray cans might not be available while safer substitutes are being developed.

But most people will acknowledge that the price is reasonable.

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