RICHLAND, WASH. — IN a way, the windowless structure rising from the flats of central Washington State is the birthplace of the nuclear age. It's ``T Plant,'' the building where the United States extracted the plutonium used in the world's first atomic bombs.
T Plant was once an engineering marvel. But today the building and the surrounding Hanford Nuclear Reservation will cost $50 billion or more for nuclear-waste cleanup over the next 40 years.
It's a huge job - and now it's facing budget cuts that environmentalists worry will slow the cleanup pace. Searching for ways to fund a middle-class tax cut, the Clinton administration is proposing a $4.4 billion trim in nuclear environmental money over the next five years.
Managers and environmentalists alike at Hanford and a dozen other affected US nuclear production sites are worried about the fallout of lower budgets. Many admit there is fat that can be trimmed from cleanup programs. But where is the line between fat and needed funds for this priority effort?
``It's a juggling act,'' says T Plant manager Ted Davis, explaining how his operation has 10 percent less money than last year.
AS the most polluted large installation remaining in the US nuclear infrastructure, Hanford gets about one-fourth of the overall cleanup money. It is thus sure to bear a large share of any cuts. The 560-square-mile reservation has more than half the total waste, by volume, in the nation's nuclear-weapons complex.
T Plant itself is now part of the cleanup effort. Its 850-foot ``canyon'' through which spent reactor fuel used to move is now used as a kind of car wash for radioactive equipment and debris from reactors and cold-war dump sites nearby.
Mr. Davis says the key will be to find fat to cut - overtime work and travel are targets this year - while pressing ahead on the legally required cleanup for which his company, a subsidiary of Westinghouse Electric Corporation, is lead contractor.
Progress is important. If work falls behind, Hanford's owner, the US Energy Department, could face lawsuits or fines for breach of the timetable it signed onto in a ``tri-party agreement'' with Washington State and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).
Each year, scores of milestones must be met under the tri-party agreement. Gerald Pollet, executive director of Heart of America Northwest, a Seattle-based watchdog group, says budget cuts must not become an excuse for missing these milestones. He says recent Energy Department statements make him worried that cuts may affect mandated work.
Since the tri-party agreement is with the DOE, not with Congress, it is unclear whether the EPA and the state would win a lawsuit if Congress fails to give DOE enough money to do the needed work. But the state and the EPA can impose heavy fines if the Energy Department fails to meet its obligations.
``We're very sensitive'' about tri-party agreement milestones, says Linda McClain, a DOE official at Hanford. She acknowledges that the budget cuts could make it tough to keep on schedule.
Yet she says it is too soon to say exactly how progress will be affected. Virtually everyone, from environmental watchdogs to the contractors themselves, acknowledges that there is fat to cut.
Energy Department officials here recently proposed steps such as privatizing bus service for workers onto the site, not building new roads and fire stations, and farming out computer and engineering services.
Mr. Pollet says he is hopeful that by 1996 Energy Secretary Hazel O'Leary will push through more-significant reforms, infusing the contract system with incentives to get work done.
Westinghouse and several other firms have enjoyed ``cost-plus'' style contracts, where they are paid their costs plus a profit margin.
This system, critics say, leaves little motivation to be efficient.
IN addition to the perceived lack of results so far, one justification for cutting spending is the rethinking of plans for the sites biggest project. A vitrification plant to turn liquid waste into solid blocks of glass is planned. Construction was to have been finished by 1999, but now the roughly $2 billion facility is being redesigned to handle more waste. The plant may not go on line until 2009.
Todd Martin, a researcher for the Hanford Education Action League, says this waste, 60 million gallons now in storage tanks, is one of the two most critical areas for action.
The other is the so-called K Basins, two concrete pools where radioactive fuel rods from Hanford reactors have been stored. The K East Basin is leaking, he notes, and both are near the Columbia River.
Mr. Martin says that because of budget cuts, ``people in the region should be more concerned now than they ever have been.''
In one sense, Hanford is reliving its early history. As in World War II, Hanford still remains a testing ground for new technologies.
Then, T Plant pioneered techniques of robotic manufacturing, to keep workers away from the hazardous materials. Today the experimentation is in cleanup techniques.
The town of Richland has the highest concentration of PhDs in the country, and the facility's 18,000 workers today vastly outnumber the 10,000 that staffed it during peak plutonium output.