Plans for a rapid buildup of the nation's nuclear arsenal may have run into a snag: a lawsuit that could delay by several years increased production of weapons-grade material.
The state of South Carolina and several environmental groups are suing the Department of Energy (DOE) to force a full-scale review of the health and safety effects of restarting an old nuclear reactor to produce plutonium and tritium, used in nuclear warheads.
The plaintiffs object to the lack of public involvement in the DOE's conclusion that there would be no significant environmental effects from the plant's start-up, now scheduled for October. If they win the right to a full environmental review and if the review leads to the adoption of certain measures to ensure that the facility does minimum harm the environment, the reopening could be delayed by as much as five years.
Four other reactors, one in Washington State and three in South Carolina, now produce the nation's plutonium and tritium, used in the nuclear warheads including the MX, Pershing II, and cruise missiles. A long delay in increased production would be ''very serious,'' says F. Charles Gilbert, DOE deputy assistant secretary for nuclear materials.
According to the DOE, the plant would discharge some 175,000 gallons of scalding water a minute, destroying 1,000 acres of wetlands. The discharge also would stir up radioactive materials that have lain dormant for years in a nearby swamp, gradually flushing them into the Savannah River. But the radiological effects on people and wildlife will be well below current health standards of the Environmental Protection Agency, say officials of the NUS .
Environmentalists and South Carolina Gov. Richard Riley are not so sure. The only way to be sure, they argue, is prepare a full environmental impact statement, a process open to public comment.
The suit also questions the safety of the reactor itself, says Thomas B. Cochran, a physicist with the Natural Resources Defense Council, one of the plaintiffs.
''The Department (of Energy) is put on notice they can not operate their own reactors to a lower standard than the standard required of any utility operating a commerical power reactor,'' he says.
Civilian nuclear reactors come under the scrutiny of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), which includes public comments at many points in its decisionmaking process.
There is no counterpart for federal nuclear reactors and much less public involvement in their construction and operation. But, says the DOE's Gilbert, teams of DOE safety and environmental experts keep a close watch on the construction and operation of such plants. And, he adds, ''The NRC efforts have not proved to be that good.''
Says a staff member of the House Armed Services Committee concerning public review of federal reactors: ''We don't need those cotton pickin' civilians telling defense people how to run its business.''
Regarding the ''L reactor'' to be restarted at the federal Savannah River plant in South Carolina, an ''extremely thorough'' environmental study was made, says Barton Marcy, project manager for the study, conducted by NUS Corporation. On the basis of this study, the DOE determined there would be no ''significant'' environmental impact from restarting the reactor, a decision the DOE maintains allows them to waive a full environmental review open to public comment.
During previous operation of the L reactor, radioactive cesium 137 escaped through a leak in cladding around fuel rods into water flushed into nearby swamplands, where it settled, says a spokesman at the facility. Some downstream communities are concerned about the safety of their drinking water if the plant reopens. But the NUS study says the amounts of cesium 137 flushed out will be so minute there will be no harmful effect.
In the NUS preliminary, in-house study, use of a cooling tower to recirculate cooling water was cited as the best environmental and engineering alternative to discharging the water. But neither the No. 1 ranking of this alternative, prefered by the environmentalists, nor the high degree at which it was rated as an alternative in a preliminary report to the DOE, was included in the final, public report, Mr. Marcy says.
''The need for the materials (plutonium and tritium) is the overriding factor ,'' he said. Construction of a cooling tower could cost $39 million and take up to 31/2 years, he estimates.
The DOE's Gilbert says the need for the materials had no direct influence on the decision not to build a cooling tower, but ''indirectly . . . that had an influcence.'' ''We do have a need for those materials,'' he says. Documents on which the need is justified are not made public for security reasons.
A full environmental review would involve little additional study but would take more than a year because of provisions that allow for public comment, says Gilbert. No court date in the case has been set.