NEARLY 40,000 tons of highly radioactive waste is sitting next to nuclear power plants around the country, waiting for permanent disposal. It's the used fuel residue of the nation's nuclear power plants.
Eighteen huge steel canisters of spent fuel rods rest in concrete bunkers at Calvert Cliffs on the western shore of the Chesapeake Bay. More temporary storage structures are planned.
Power plants are not designed for long-term storage of nuclear waste. The federal government pledged in 1982 to create a safe, consolidated storage facility for this toxic detritus. Customers of power plants have paid $14 billion in taxes to fund a disposal site.
Washington has dragged its heels. The deadline passed Jan. 31; 42 utilities and 35 states are suing to force the government to take their nuclear waste.
For a dozen years, the Department of Energy has analyzed Yucca Mountain, next to old atomic weapons test grounds in the Nevada desert, as the most promising site for a permanent facility. Environmental and safety studies have lagged, in part because of Nevada officials' strong opposition.
But no alternative site is being considered seriously. And DOE says no permanent facility could be built at Yucca before 2010.
Legislation passed by both houses of Congress would require an interim storage facility near Yucca. President Clinton says he will veto the plan because scientific studies on a permanent facility aren't finished; they won't be completed until after he leaves office.
That calculated policy of delay imperils the safe, efficient and responsible storage of nuclear fuel waste at a central site. It compromises a 16-year-old promise, leaving these spent rods at dozens of reactor sites, many of them near population centers.
Questions arise about safe, long-distance transportation of this hazardous cargo to a central repository. And by shipping fuel waste to Yucca Mountain for interim storage, the site will assuredly become the permanent site, regardless of what further studies show.
The difficult choice comes down to a long-studied, federally managed central repository in the desert or power plant sites that were never meant for long-term storage and are running out of room. But that choice was made 16 years ago and hasn't changed.
The president should honor the government's obligation and approve a central interim storage facility now.
Pub Date: 4/09/98