WASHINGTON -- It was a promise made 16 years ago. By Feb. 1, 1998, the government would find a place to safely store the thousands of tons of highly radioactive waste generated by civilian power plants.
At midnight Saturday the deadline passes. And there won't be any trucks hauling wastes from power reactors -- only more legal sparring over what has become the nuclear industry's most perplexing problem.
A federal court last November reaffirmed that the Energy Department, which has collected billions of dollars from electricity users to build a waste burial site, has an obligation to accept the used reactor fuel rods that remain deadly for thousands of years.
And, the court declared, the government can't hide behind the excuse that it has no place to put it. Since then, utilities and department officials have dueled over what steps should be taken next.
"Obviously it's impossible for us to meet this (obligation)," Deputy Energy Secretary Elizabeth Moller said recently when asked about the dilemma. With no permanent burial site -- or even temporary warehouse -- available, department officials have offered to help pay for continued storage at reactor sites.
That's unacceptable, argue the reactor operators.
"What the utilities want is for the Energy Department to take their spent fuel, and they're simply not willing to do that," said Jay Silberg, an attorney representing 36 reactor operators who have asked the courts to require the wastes be taken to a government facility.
More than 40,000 tons of used reactor fuel have piled up at 71 civilian nuclear power plants in 34 states, with the amount growing every year. Reactor storage pools are filling up, and 10 plants have had to put fuel in dry-cask storage, which has been expensive and in some cases locally controversial.
"The Energy Department's handling of this matter is inexcusable," said Joe Colvin, president of the Nuclear Energy Institute, the industry's trade group. He said utility customers already have paid nearly $14 billion into a federal fund to develop a centralized waste storage facility, but so far not even a site has been found.
"The American taxpayers and electric customers have a right to be outraged," he continued.
But others argue that the utility industry is exaggerating the urgency, and some nuclear critics maintain the industry should take care of its own waste.
"It's one of the biggest industrial bailouts ever," argues Michael Mariotte of the Nuclear Information and Resources Service, an anti-nuclear advocacy group. He said a central storage facility would mean thousands of nuclear waste shipments crisscrossing the country by truck and rail, posing increased safety hazards.
Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., whose state has been talked of as the most likely long-term storage place for the waste, maintains that even if the government should eventually take the material, there is no need for a "mad rush" to transport it.
"If it's so safe, leave it where it is," he argues.
But utility executive say it's a matter of fairness and of government's keeping its word since Congress in 1982 assured the industry that the Energy Department would take the spent reactor fuel, which will remain highly radioactive for thousands of years.
Industry officials say the fuel pools at reactor sites never were meant for long-term storage. And putting the fuel rods into metal casks and concrete bunkers will be expensive and foment local opposition to the power plants themselves.
That was the case in Minnesota when Northern States Power Co. put some of its spent fuel in dry storage after its water pool ran out of space at the Prairie Island power plant. A heated debate ensued and even threatened continued operation of the plant itself.
The utility's "credibility in the communities it serves and in which it operates was and continues to be seriously damaged by (the federal government's) failure to meet its obligations" to take the spent fuel, Northern States argued in court.
Both the Senate and House have passed legislation that would require the government to build a temporary warehouse for the waste in Nevada until a permanent burial site can be located and built. But the measure, which would require the first shipments in 2003, faces an almost certain veto by President Clinton if it passes Congress.
The administration has opposed a temporary storage site because, officials say, that would shift efforts away from developing a permanent repository.
Nonsense, argues Sen. Frank Murkowski, R-Alaska, chairman of the Energy and Natural Resources Committee that crafted the Senate version of the waste bill.
"By refusing to begin accepting America's spent nuclear fuel, the Energy Department puts in jeopardy the entire nuclear industry," Murkowski said Friday. "This country is nearing an environmental crisis."