WASHINGTON — SIX months after taking command of the Energy Department and vowing to steer its nuclear-weapons program out of troubled seas, retired Adm. James Watkins is spending as much time bailing water as setting the new course. The latest crisis was a threat last week that the Rocky Flats weapons plant near Denver would be shut down because of acknowledged illegal storage of waste from plutonium processing. The plant is a critical link in the nuclear arms production chain.
Rockwell International Corporation, which operates the plant under a government contract, decided over the weekend to delay a decision on closing the plant so officials can work on a plan to bring the plant's waste storage into compliance.
Also last week, Admiral Watkins faced a court order - eventually withdrawn - to appear before a federal judge in Ohio to help resolve a dispute over a $78 million settlement of a lawsuit by neighbors of a weapons plant near Cincinnati. Watkins acknowledges that this plant also is violating environmental regulations.
Before that, it was Idaho Gov. Cecil Andrus closing his state's borders to shipments of radioactive waste from Rocky Flats, a move that could force Watkins to halt production at the Colorado plant as early as next March. Governor Andrus acted after the department failed to open a waste repository in New Mexico as scheduled.
One day before that, a federal judge in Washington stopped Watkins from awarding a $10 billion contract to Bechtel National Inc. to manage a proposed high-level nuclear waste dump in Nevada.
At the same time, Watkins was negotiating with Westinghouse Electric Corporation over a timetable for completing repairs to the idled Savannah River nuclear reactors in South Carolina that are the nation's only source of tritium gas used in nuclear warheads.
All this happened in the space of two weeks - bursts of political fallout from years of government neglect. The Reagan administration had attempted to abolish the department.
Watkins has spent much of his first half-year as energy secretary managing crises in virtually every part of the nuclear weapons program: reactor breakdowns, lawsuits by citizens and states, setbacks in waste storage, lapses in security at top-secret weapons labs, plant raids by the Federal Bureau of Investigation, and funding battles with Congress.
A strapping, articulate man who usually projects a strong sense of self-confidence, Watkins last week sounded frustrated by his inability so far to accomplish the turnaround he promised when he took the job in March.
``I have been overwhelmed by the breadth and depth of the problems'' in the weapons program, Watkins told an advisory group, adding that no one in the Bush administration, including the president, realized how long it would take to fix it.