OUR $11.8 billion-a-year nuclear-weapons complex has turned into an out-of-control jobs and corporate welfare program. For years we have known that to make the bomb, the Department of Energy kept 100,000 people working in dangerous facilities managed by unscrupulous contractors and overmatched bureaucrats. Now we learn that government managers were in cahoots with the contractors, Westinghouse and Bechtel, to hide multi-million-dollar cost overruns at the huge Savannah River nuclear-weapons facility in South Carolina. Together they worked an elaborate shell game, hoping to swindle ``good management'' bonuses from the taxpayer. The secretary of energy apparently learned of the debacle only by reading about it in the newspaper. In mid-May the agency's own inspector general said he considers fully 20 percent of the present production budget to be wasted.
Undaunted by this corruption, members of South Carolina's congressional delegation in recent days persuaded their colleagues on the House Armed Services Committee to bypass the usual review process and support construction of yet another weapons-production reactor along the Savannah. Reactor sites are supposed to be chosen under the National Environmental Policy Act, which requires public hearings. In this case, Congress is ignoring the law it wrote.
South Carolina's motives are revealed in a letter from the state's Development Board to civic leaders. ``Thousands of new jobs would be created if the new weapons reactor is built at Savannah River,'' the bomb boosters wrote, ``but as many as 60,000 jobs ultimately could be lost throughout the region if Idaho or Washington state is selected instead of South Carolina.'' In Idaho, the Chamber of Commerce sent a similar letter to its constituents.
These machinations are lowlights in a decades-long story of billion-dollar boondoggles surrounding the nuclear-weapons industry. It features pork-barrel politics, criminal mismanagement, disregard for environmental laws, and constant danger to worker and community health through sheer carelessness.
Such problems in the weapons complex run so deep, and the political will to correct them is so tenuous, that several top officials have quit the Energy Department in recent months.
During the cold war, these managers could escape the consequences of their disastrous record. Emerging from the mystique of the Manhattan Project, the cold war made their factories and products seem vital no matter what the cost. Today any rationale for an all-out arms race has vanished. Their standoff ended, the superpowers seek to reduce, not enlarge, their stocks of unusable nuclear weapons. The nuclear threat of the 1990s is the arms race itself - proliferating to more and smaller countries.
In the United States, the only remaining motives for building new nuclear-weapons plants are shortsighted contractors' profits and outdated jobs. But if bomb-building is indeed a public-works project, we must compare its toll on the environment, public and worker health, the federal budget, and regional employment with other sorts of job and construction projects.
Does the nation and its work force benefit more from $10 billion spent for new weapons reactors, or $10 billion spent for road improvements, housing for the homeless, or cleaning up the toxic and radioactive waste that have devastated thousands of acres around the weapons plants? New roads and new housing give us something we can use, for which we know the real cost. New weapons give us something intended never to be used, whose real costs will take generations to pay. The record shows every dollar spen t on a new weapons plant will be more than matched by cleanup and compensation costs that the taxpayer must pay later.
This does not mean the US must unilaterally abandon its nuclear deterrent. Our stockpile of more than 20,000 sophisticated weapons could be shrunk dramatically and still provide more than enough strength to destroy the Soviet Union or any other country. Scientists in and out of the weapons labs now say we can drastically reduce the plants' workload and resulting pollution by ``recycling'' warheads from decommissioned weapons. Indeed, one recent test of a recycled warhead ``exceeded'' the designers' expe ctations, prompting Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory director John Nuckolls to encourage Congress that recycling is feasible.
By recycling warheads, the nation also gains decades to search for safer and cheaper alternatives to a new reactor in South Carolina or Idaho. The reactor is meant to produce tritium, the radioactive gas that boosts a warhead's explosive power but decays by 5.5 percent a year. A force of 3,000 to 4,000 warheads could be maintained for 30 years by using what we already have.
Remnants of the cold war's nuclear-weapons complex will be with us for the foreseeable future. We can protect ourselves, however, with a more efficient force that does not fall prey to the contractors, local chambers of commerce, and politicians who simply want to get on the Energy Department's gravy train. This means forgoing new production reactors, recycling and standardizing warheads, closing the marginal facilities, and operating the bomb business as if the taxpayers' money and health matter.