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HOW TO STABILIZE NUCLEAR WASTE

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There may be a small miracle taking place in Cattaraugus County, 35 miles from Buffalo, N.Y., where technicians are trying to stabilize thousands of gallons of radioactive waste by mixing it with glass.

If it works, and if the federal funding for it continues, the project could well be replicated in other parts of the country that are trying to figure out how to contain Chernobyl-like quantities of lethal nuclear material.As The Times' Matthew Wald recently noted, Cattaraugus County - with federal help - is trying to "back out of one of the greatest dead ends in American industrial history." The dead end started with the mistaken notion that the ingredients of an atomic bomb could easily be converted to peaceful uses, like cheap electricity.

The boundlessly optimistic Nelson Rockefeller, then governor of New York, jumped on the opportunity and in 1966 dedicated a factory in the village of West Valley. The factory was designed to take in spent reactor fuel, chop it up and dissolve it in acid. The recovered uranium and plutonium would then be resold to utilities and military installations.

It never worked. The company, called Nuclear Fuel Services, brought in 640 metric tons of spent nuclear fuel, mostly from the Hanford Nuclear Reservation, the country's principal weapons plant. Turning that fuel into reusable uranium turned out to be complicated and unprofitable. The net result was 660,000 gallons of liquid waste, stored in steel tanks that eventually began to rust.

Enter Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan of New York, who knew that if the tanks leaked, the groundwater around Buffalo would be poisoned, perhaps forever. He got President Carter to sign a bill authorizing an experiment aimed at solving Buffalo's problem while pointing the way to solutions for similar problems elsewhere.

Since 1980, Congress has appropriated $1 billion to deal with waste left by a plant that cost only $32 million to build.

This extraordinary outlay, mainly for cleanup costs at the site and trial-and-error research, has produced a process under which engineers treat the wastes chemically, then mix them with molten glass in 10-foot-high "logs" that will eventually be shipped to a permanent storage site. The logs will still contain lethal amounts of radioactive material. But solidified in glass, the waste will not spread.

The first canister was filled last month. There are about 300 more canisters to go before West Valley is out of danger. Congress has designated $123 million for the current fiscal year. More will be needed to complete the job.

If the technology proves to be sound, Congress will have to come up with more money to clean the two other facilities that have produced dangerous nuclear waste in liquid form - the Hanford facility and the Idaho National Engineering Laboratory.

In one sense, this is throwing a lot of good money after bad. But if we learn how to stabilize nuclear waste, the money will not have been wasted.