A controversial plan to ship low-level radioactive wastes from the United States to a little-known Russian republic on the Caspian Sea could mark the start of a new industry to export those materials.

If approved by federal regulators, a commercial venture sponsored by Master International Systems USA of Maspeth, N.Y., would move 1.3 million barrels of dangerous radioactive materials to Dagestan, an autonomous republic of the Russian Federation, over a four-year period.Not only would that reopen debate over the need for more - and less- expensive - low-level waste disposal sites than the two currently operating in the United States, but it would turn the spotlight once more on the nettlesome issue of wealthy countries disposing of their hazardous waste in poor countries.

Under the Master International proposal, the shipments would travel 1,100 miles by truck from the headquarters of Westinghouse Electric Corp.'s waste management subsidiary Scientific Ecology Group in Oak Ridge, Tenn., where the U.S. government operates a nuclear research laboratory, to an airport at Bangor, Maine.

The radioactive cargo would then be loaded on jets leased by Aeroflot, through their joint venture in Bangor with Polar Air Cargo, for the flight to Machazkala Airport in Dagestan, with a stop at Shannon, Ireland, for refueling.

Once in Dagestan, the waste would again be trucked 40 miles to an empty bomb shelter in the Caucasus Mountains, for burial 3,600 feet underground.

"We've been approached (by Master International) and are investigating this possibility," said Westinghouse spokesman Vaughn Gilbert, in a telephone interview. "But before we engage in this endeavor, we have to see if this can be done profitably and safely. We also have to make sure it's legal, according to the laws of both countries."

At least one part of the plan, however, was thrown into doubt last week, when Emmet Stagg, Ireland's minister of state for transport, energy and communications, said the government would not allow the flight to land in Shannon for refueling.


Meanwhile, information about Master International is hard to get.

Thomas Toscano, attorney for Master International, said the company applied to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission for an NRC-7 waste export license on Aug. 22, one day after the commission put licensing rules in place.

"The NRC has never considered an NRC-7 application before, so I don't know how long it will take. Until they make a decision, we will have no further comment," said Mr. Toscano, who would give no more details of the plan.

Greenpeace, the environmental advocacy group, which is working to block the shipments, said Master International was formed in August 1994 specifically for the waste export venture and has done no other business so far.

Of the three principals in the company, one is in the rag recyling business, another owns a restaurant, and the third is in the import and export business with contacts in Russia, according to Greenpeace.

Sue Gagnon, an NRC spokeswoman, confirmed that the agency had received the application, but said she couldn't tell how long its review would take. "We have some questions about it, and we will also need to get the views of the executive branch before we can complete it," she said.


But while exports of low-level wastes from the United States to Dagestan may be legal under U.S. law, they fall into a gray zone of international law that has yet to be tested, said Kenny Bruno, an international trade specialist for the environmental group.

"There is trade in spent fuel for reprocessing, but this is the first time that I know of trade in radioactive waste for disposal," said Mr. Bruno.

Oddly enough, until 1992, all radioactive waste from Dagestan was sent for disposal to the now war-torn Chechen Republic, Greenpeace said.

"Greenpeace has been campaigning for many years to prohibit the exports of any hazardous waste to developing countries or the Eastern bloc," Mr. Bruno said. "If those exports take place, it won't necessarily break U.S. laws. We want a law prohibiting those exports that would make it perfectly clear."


The waste shipments would contravene the spirit if not the letter of the United Nation's recently adopted Basel Convention.

Last week, more than 90 countries meeting in Geneva voted to formalize a ban on exports of toxic wastes from developed countries for final disposal in developing nations. The ban also extends to recyling of those wastes after 1997.

The United States is not a party to the Basel Convention, which was signed by more than 100 nations in 1989. That agreement, however, currently excludes radioactive wastes from the export ban on the grounds that those materials may already be covered by the International Atomic Energy Agency's "Code of Practice."

But that is a voluntary code that fails to protect developing countries

from the dangers of radioactive waste that they didn't produce, said Mr. Bruno.

"Even though it's called low-level waste, it still contains a whole range of radionuclides, including cesium, plutonium, carbon 14 and others," he said. "Some are short-lived and others are long-lived, but even the most conservative estimate says it's hazardous for 500 years, and some of it will be toxic for thousands of years."

At the same time, however, sending the waste to Dagestan, including freight, would be less than half of the more than $300-a-cubic-foot cost of its disposal in the United States, said Mr. Bruno.


Disposal costs in the United States are so high because only two sites are available - one in Washington and one in South Carolina, said Steve Unglesbee, spokesman for the Nuclear Energy Institute, Washington, D.C., the industry's trade group.

"As a world leader in nuclear technology and a country that gets a lot of benefits from its nuclear industry, the United States should be able to take care of its own nuclear waste," said Mr. Unglesbee.

Those benefits include the manufacture of electricity as well as scientific, medical and pharmaceutical research, all of which produce tons of low-level radioactive waste each year. The waste may be plastic gloves and coveralls, glass and plastic laboratory supplies, tools and filters, but not spent fuel from nuclear reactors.

Low-level waste accounts for 85 percent of all radioactive waste by volume, but only 1 percent of radioactivity.


Disposing of that waste was assigned in 1980 to the states, which have formed regional groups, or "compacts," to develop disposal sites. So far, however, the Department of the Interior has blocked most attempts to conclude those programs, said Mr. Unglesbee.

"The reason you are seeing situations like Dagestan is that fear mongering over low-level waste disposal and recurring political gridlock has virtually paralyzed the development of new sites here in the United States," Mr. Unglesbee said.

"We view it as highlighting the need by the states for the federal government to let the country's existing low-level waste policies work," he said.