SENECA, S.C. (AP) _ Thirty-four stainless steel canisters nested in a drab concrete bunker symbolize one of the nuclear power industry's biggest _ and potentially deadliest _ problems.

Stored inside the canisters at Duke Power Co.'s Oconee nuclear plant is nuclear refuse that will remain deadly with radiation for more than 10,000 years. Underwater storage pools are running out of space, while the government remains years _ perhaps decades _ away from providing a centralized waste disposal site.

The refuse is being produced at a rate of 2,000 tons a year, by 109 commercial reactors from Maine to California.

``In the end, it might not be economics, but spent fuel storage and disposal that determine the viability of nuclear power in the United States,'' Ivan Selin, outgoing chairman of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, recently told an industry conference.

Utility executives argue that the government promised years ago to take spent fuel off their hands when storage pools begin to fill to capacity. But the Energy Department has been unable to find a location for interim storage and its program to build a permanent underground burial site is years behind schedule and in jeopardy.

``Now the rationale is everybody keep our garbage ... because politically we can't make a decision about where to put it,'' grouses Bill Lee, the Duke Power executive who is chairman of an industry task force on nuclear waste.

While insisting that dry storage is safe, Lee bristles at the idea of keeping spent fuel at reactor sites for decades. It's an added, unfair expense _ perhaps as much as $37 million _ that electricity customers will have to pay, he said.

Some nuclear critics as well as the industry's supporters question whether it's wise to create mininuclear repositories in 75 communities across the country while not knowing when, or if, a central disposal site ever will be available.

``I'm not saying they're not safe,'' says William McCormick, chairman of Consumers Power Co. in Michigan, of the on-site cask storage of reactor spent fuel, ``but I think it would be better for everybody if (the fuel canisters) were out in the middle of the desert somewhere where nobody's around.''

Consumers Power began dry, above-ground storage last year at its Palisades nuclear power plant in Michigan after overcoming a lawsuit that had challenged the safety of the casks. McCormick said the utility was running out of space in underwater storage. The only other option, he said, was closing down the 27-year-old plant.

In many states, the waste issue has galvanized opposition to nuclear power itself.

In Minnesota, Northern States Power Co. had to agree to phase out nuclear power to get permission from the state Legislature for dry storage at its Prairie Island nuclear plant. Critics said they were worried the canisters would leak and contaminate the nearby Mississippi River.

The legislative fight was like ``a knife hanging over everybody's head,'' recalls James Howard, Northern State Power's chairman, who said Prairie Island was within days of shutting down before the dry-cask fuel storage was approved.

Lee calls the waste issue ``the Achilles heel'' of the industry. ``Investors will not commit to another nuclear power plant until the waste issue is resolved,'' he said.

Already, nearly 30,000 tons of spent fuel has accumulated at reactor sites in 34 states and the amount is expected to double in 15 years and reach 86,000 metric tons by 2033 when current reactor licenses will have expired, says the Energy Department.

The plutonium alone, about 1 percent of the fuel, is more than all the plutonium produced by both the United States and Soviet Union during the nearly half century of the Cold War.

In 15 years, the earliest a central underground repository could be available, as many as 80 reactors will have run out of underwater storage at reactor sites and turned to dry above-ground storage, according to industry estimates.

At the Oconee plant, a double fence and motion detectors seek to keep trespassers away from the bunker where spent fuel is stored behind three-foot walls of concrete.

All but six of 40 above-ground vaults are full. Plans are in the works for 54 more.

Each canister holds 24 bundles of nuclear fuel rods. Helium has been pumped in to maintain pressure and reduce heat transfer from the nuclear-age mix of uranium, cesium, plutonium, strontium and other highly radioactive elements.

A few seconds of direct exposure would cause death, but outside the vaults dosimeters record negligible radiation. At the fence line a short distance away, there are no signs of above normal radiation. NRC standards call for a maximum of 25 millirems of exposure per year at the fence line, one-fifth of natural background.

Nationwide, utilities are expected to pay $34 million to $50 million for every 500 tons of spent fuel stored in dry casks. That expense could double or even triple after a reactor closes, according to Energy Resources International, a nuclear consulting firm.

Electricity customers will likely have to pay the bill.

For every 10 kilowatts of electricity, ratepayers pay a penny into a federal nuclear waste fund. The money is earmarked for a central disposal site. About $9 billion has been paid into the fund, with about $4.2 billion already spent.

The unspent money is being used to help cushion the federal deficit, says Emmit George, a utility regulator in Iowa who heads the nuclear waste committee of the National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners.

The association has joined the nuclear power industry in demanding that the federal government begin accepting nuclear wastes in 1998 or stop collecting money into the fund.

``It's nothing more than a high level swindle ... a $10 billion scam perpetuated by our own federal government,'' says Michigan Attorney General Frank Kelley, whose state joined 19 others in a lawsuit against the Energy Department because of its refusal to take the civilian reactor fuel.

Energy Secretary Hazel O'Leary argues that the department is barred by law from accepting waste for temporary storage until a permanent site is approved, a precaution Congress took in 1982 to assure an interim location does not become by default permanent.

Several bills have been introduced that would designate a site in Nevada _ near the site of a proposed permanent repository _ for interim storage. There also have been proposals to open former nuclear weapons production sites in South Carolina and Washington for civilian spent fuel.

``Nevada is again being singled out as a sacrificial lamb for the problems of the nuclear power industry,'' says Sen. Richard Bryan, D-Nev. He promises to fight an interim site in Nevada and says nuclear fund money should be used for storage at reactor sites.