ENVIRONMENT / NUCLEAR DILEMMA : Ex-Idaho Official Handed Atomic Waste Hot Potato : David Leroy seeks a temporary home for 4 million spent reactor fuel rods from the nation's utilities. So far, states have balked.


It took more than two years, but the White House at last has a man who is going to try to find a temporary home for the glut of spent nuclear reactor fuel rods that are now outgrowing their storage compartments at power plants across the country.

David Leroy, former Idaho attorney general, former lieutenant governor, bright light of the Gem State GOP, has taken on what may be the most hopeless $80,000-a-year job that George Bush has had to offer.

"Obviously, there is no guarantee of success," Leroy concedes, with a touch of understatement about his new job. "But the opportunity is exciting, and we are going to pursue it aggressively."

Here, in brief, is his problem:

At the beginning of this year, electrical utilities in the United States had somewhere around 4 million used-up nuclear reactor fuel rods on hand, most of them sequestered in deep pools of water.

They cool there year after year, but they remain dangerously radioactive.

In cases where power companies have had nuclear reactors for a long time, those pools are almost filled to capacity. Besides residual uranium, the spent rods contain radioactive byproducts of strontium, cesium and iodine, meaning they not only emit gamma radiation similar to X-rays, but they remain "hot" for hundreds of years.

Under a longstanding agreement, the federal government is committed to begin taking these used rods off the utilities' hands in 1998.

Utilities that have nuclear plants have been collecting a surcharge from their customers to help foot the bill. They have a trust fund of almost $3 billion.

The plan is eventually to consign all of these spent fuel rods to deep, dry geological deposits, where they can be left to the ages. But it will take 20 years at minimum, and probably much longer, before any permanent repository is ready.

The current site-of-choice is Yucca Mountain in Nevada, but Nevada isn't exactly ecstatic about the prospect. State officials have gone to court to try to ban the nuclear graveyard from the state. The federal government wants the courts to sanction a further evaluation.

Leroy is caught in something of a political cooling-pool himself. Under the law, the temporary storage facility that his new agency wants to construct somewhere cannot be built until a permanent repository has been licensed.

This was the precaution Congress took to assure that the temporary site--or MRS, for Monitored Retrievable Storage--would not inadvertently become permanent.

Several years ago, it appeared that the MRS would be built at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee, which had land available after plans for an experimental fast-breeder reactor project were canceled.

But state political leaders protested, and other states followed suit. If Oak Ridge, Tenn., the birthplace of nuclear power, wanted no part of MRS, neither did they, voters and officials reasoned.

Now comes former state official Leroy, with a new approach: To offset any perception that Washington is trying to foist the waste site on any state, he has decided to set up the headquarters of the new nuclear waste negotiator's office in Boise.

This fall, he plans to send a request for proposals on an MRS site to officials of all 50 states, the U.S. territories and leaders of American Indian tribes.

He plans to use as his model a 75-page presentation that the Energy Department used when it set out to find a site for its gigantic superconducting super collider--an atom-smasher costing several billion dollars and reputed to be history's most expensive scientific instrument. That project was eagerly sought in a competition won by Texas.

Needless to say, Leroy's argument will be that the MRS will be safe and that it will bring jobs to the state, and a handsome payroll as well.

"This has greatly suffered from both confusion and alienation, and we hope to bring to the fore a whole new attitude and political process," Leroy says. "We hope to see volunteerism where there has been none before. We hope we are even going to have competition for this."

When Congress created the negotiator's job, it bestowed the same kind of statutory independence that it gave the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, but it also gave the new office no more than a five-year lifetime.

That means Leroy now has two years to find a home for the nuclear spent rods.

Meanwhile, the utilities that have full storage pools are beginning to turn to solid cast-iron storage containers and lined concrete bunkers to hold the portion of waste that has cooled enough.

The President never promised him a Rose Garden, Leroy concedes.

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