DISPOSAL of radioactive waste is part of the price civilization has been paying for the conveniences of the Atomic Age.
Underestimation of the difficulty of doing the job safely has been disastrous in some situations.
Of worldwide concern is the practice of dumping low-level radioactive waste into the seas, which have long been under heavy pressure from ``ordinary'' waste. At a recent international meeting in London, 37 of the 71 member nations of the London Dumping Convention voted in favor of an international ban on disposal of radioactive waste at sea.
The convention came up with an assessment that ``provides a persuasive basis for a permanent, worldwide ban'' on such dumping. The ban is binding on all, but five nations - Britain, France, Belgium, Russia, and China - abstained. They have retained the option within 100 days of not accepting the ban.
Further, the British have claimed that, while they have no plans to dump radioactive waste now, they reserve the right after 15 years to opt out of the agreement. Belgium and France also claim that privilege.
Ocean dumping of radioactive waste in the Arctic by the former Soviet Union is described by Greenpeace International as of special concern. The militant environmental-protection group has long objected to the dispersal of radioactive wastes at sea. Russia confirmed Oct. 18 that one of its tankers dumped 900 tons of liquid nuclear waste in the Sea of Japan and that it planned to dump another 800 tons by Nov. 15; the latter action was ``postponed.'' Greenpeace and others have protested the dumping.
The London agreement follows the Ocean Dumping Ban Act of 1988, enacted by the United States Congress, an attempt to end dumping of industrial waste and sewage sludge at sea. An earlier version of the act permits dumping low-level waste at sea only if ``designated findings have been made by the Environmental Protection Agency.''
Prior to 1970 the US allowed dumping of radioactive wastes at sites in the Atlantic, Pacific, and Gulf of Mexico. This was abandoned when the Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ) issued a policy holding that dumping radioactive waste at sea presented ``a serious and growing threat to the marine environment.''
More than 20 countries, including the US, now favor a worldwide ban on disposal of radioactive waste in the sea. The five holdouts from the London meeting should follow suit.