Managing Nuclear Weapons Production

IN the space of less than a year, concern about the health and environmental consequences of nuclear weapons production has burst into America's consciousness. After 45 years of building nuclear weapons at more than a dozen government-owned facilities, the disclosures of 1988 shattered any illusion that this had been done safely. The Atomic Energy Commission released 5,000 curies of radioactive iodine in the state of Washington. Its successor, the Energy Research and Development Administration, permitted plutonium dust to contaminate communities near Denver. And the latest incarnation, the Department of Energy (DOE), was still managing the reactors at the Savannah River plant in South Carolina in a careless manner. Hundreds of accidents, releases, and incidents of contamination and exposures became public in 1988. Workers and communities had been placed at such risk that Americans began to ask whether nuclear weapons production had done more to damage national security than promote it.

The nuclear weapons production program and its contractors have always made weapons output their top priority. Health and safety were always secondary to the ``national security'' goal of producing weapons for the Department of Defense. Oversight was lacking, and the Energy Department now admits the problem.

All of the underlying problems have a unifying theme: secrecy. Starting in World War II and continuing into the cold war, the production of nuclear weapons was paramount, and how it was done was secret. As Sen. John Glenn commented, ``But little did any of us suspect the also secret environmental degradation and debt to the future that was accumulating. There undoubtedly are certain specifics of nuclear weapons production that must remain secret, but that veil of secrecy can no longer cover environment, safety, and health matters.''

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Surely, when working with Gov. Richard Lamm on the problems of Rocky Flats, the DOE production facility in Colorado in 1977, we had no dream that we could extend the concept of open government to include nuclear weapons production. But today, Mr. Glenn is with the majority. What made these new attitudes possible?

The Environmental Policy Institute investigated, the Natural Resources Defense Council sued, and Physicians for Social Responsibility monitored health. Workers' fears grew and spread to communities. State and local government responded to the public. Even Congress became active. The stories of accidents, spills, mismanagement, and disregard for safety burst forth.

The Department of Energy itself has responded more openly than its critics would have believed possible. It acknowledged deficiencies as it put forward a plan that may cost $200 billion to clean up and rebuild the weapons production enterprise. The plan seems to call for fixing up the current plants to produce just the amount of tritium and plutonium that is needed in the short run; building a new and streamlined weapons production system; and cleaning up all the current facilities. At this writing, no specifics are available, and we can't say if the plans are realistic. At the very least, however, basic control and oversight procedures can be put in place to ensure better performance than in the past.

Formal approaches exist in US practice and law to resolve the public's concern about the dangers of health, safety, and the environment caused by the DOE's nuclear weapons production program. These suggestions are put forward as minimum protections compatible with secrecy for specific weapons technology.

The United States Public Health Service's tradition of sharing access to data on health, safety, and the environment with independent researchers should be extended to DOE. Data on releases to the environment, exposures of individuals, and health outcomes should be shared with all legitimate researchers.

The current memorandum of understanding between the Departments of Labor and Energy should be rewritten to put health and safety regulation at Energy Department weapons production facilities directly under the regulatory authority of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration and the research authority of the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health. This would give workers and unions access to the regulatory process and its protections at the weapons plants.

The National Environmental Policy Act should be applied to the DOE weapons production program. This would require environmental-impact statements and reviews on cleanup plans, modernization, and new plant construction. Communities, state governments, and other federal agencies would have access to the process.

States should review the Energy Department's cleanup plans and seek court-enforceable consent decrees to ensure that DOE lives up to the promise to remove health and environmental hazards.

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