THE next president and Congress face a herculean task: cleaning up the ``stables'' where the United States Department of Energy processes radioactive materials for nuclear weapons. It will be just as crucial to instill in the people who run the department's weapons program the notion that there is no excuse - especially in peacetime - for letting production plants be run with wanton disregard for the well-being of nearby communities.
That is the case in Fernald, Ohio, where the Energy Department processes uranium for nuclear weapons and weapons-production reactors. Documents the department filed in court in response to a lawsuit show that for decades its officials knew the plant was spewing tons of radioactive waste into the environment and decided not to clean it up. Ohio environmental officials estimate that in the 37 years the plant has operated, it has dumped 6,350 tons of uranium in storage pits, sent another 149 tons into the air as dust, and pumped 83.5 tons into the Great Miami River.
According to the General Accounting Office, contamination of underground water supplies at Fernald exceed permissible levels by ``hundreds or even thousands of times.'' The GAO estimates that Congress would have to spend $450 million to $600 million to clean up the mess and renovate the facility. The cost of cleaning up, modernizing, and running all of department's weapons production plants would exceed $170 billion.
The documents appear to contain the department's first public admission that it consciously ignored pollution at one of its plants.
The admission gives the public good reason to suspect that such willful negligence has been repeated at other troubled weapons sites, such as Savannah River, S.C., Rocky Flats, Colo., and Hanford, Wash.
For several months, the department has been trying to decide what to do about its aging weapons network, which dates back to the 1950s. A draft set of recommendations calls for closing Fernald and Rocky Flats. Improving operations at the remaining plants, as the draft study recommends, and granting President Reagan's request for two new plants are worth support.
In the meantime, the Energy Department clearly has a moral responsibility to provide nearby residents with an accurate estimate - corroborated by outside specialists - of the extent of contamination at Fernald. It should also seek money from Congress for compensation for anyone adversely affected by the contamination. In 1986 the department sought and Congress granted money to begin cleaning up the site; but more needs to be spent and efforts speeded.
Over the long term, Congress should take authority for enforcement of safety and environmental regulations at the weapons plants out of the hands of the Department of Energy and give it to an independent agency, such as the Nuclear Regulatory Commission or the Environmental Protection Agency.