Weapons plants: not always safety first. Energy Department debates solutions

As chairman of a new blue-ribbon panel monitoring safety at nuclear defense facilities, John Ahearne expected to be kept informed of problems at the Department of Energy's (DOE) hapless Savannah River Plant. And he was - by a member of the news media.

``The only information I have is from a reporter, with verification extracted painfully from DOE,'' Mr. Ahearne telegraphed the department office at the South Carolina nuclear plant after a recent freak power surge there.

``When the story breaks in the papers tomorrow, I will be called by the press, and I suspect John Glenn's office will ask me up to the Hill.''

And so it did, Senator Glenn (D) of Ohio noted wryly, as he finished reading aloud Ahearne's telegram at a recent hearing on the plant's mishaps.

That experience to many typified the problems that beset efforts to improve safety regulations at federal nuclear weapons sites.

DOE regulates its own sites used for producing, researching, and testing nuclear weapons. The standards used for commercial plants do not apply to DOE.

Mishaps at the sprawling Savannah River preserve, and problems with reporting them, show a lax attitude toward safety and environmental concerns that grew out of the weapons manufacturing system's roots in the 1950s, some DOE officials say today.

Leonard Weiss, staff director of Glenn's Governmental Affairs Committee, which has investigated the issue for several years, says DOE estimates it will cost as much as $175 billion to clean up contamination and upgrade safety facilities at 17 of its sites.

Recent focus on these issues makes this year ``a turning point,'' he says. ``There is almost a civil war going on at the Department of Energy, between people who want to see something happen in terms of health and safety, and those who say the plants should continue to operate in secrecy and that national security requires us to cut corners.''

A new environment, safety, and health division at DOE is strengthening regulations, he says, and recent outside studies helped spur the closing of weapons-related nuclear production in Hanson, Wash., earlier this year and a reduction of power levels at the aging Savannah River reactors, which are currently not operating.

While Congress recently established a new presidential oversight panel for defense nuclear sites, Weiss says the measure needs to be strengthened.

But Jeff Subko, an aide to Sen. J. James Exon (D) of Nebraska, who supported creating a weaker panel, says, ``We want to strike a plane where production and safety are co-equal.''

Currently, he points out, all the nation's reactors for producing plutonium and tritium for nuclear weapons are shut down, mainly because of safety concerns, and the US could sometime in the future enter a period of self-enforced arms reduction.

Building two new proposed production facilities will take years, and cost an estimated $6.8 billion, a figure that some say will end up much higher.

Solutions to regulatory problems proposed by environmentalists and others include:

A stronger oversight panel with authority to shut down and fine all Energy Department nuclear sites.

Safety standards comparable to commercial nuclear plants and subject to stricter state and local regulations.

A management and staff model based on the US Navy's exemplary nuclear program, with strong disincentives for error, extensive training and a long-term career track.

Greater use of new technologies, such as a supposedly safer gas-cooled production reactor, already proposed by DOE for one new site.

Revived commitment to the spirit of ``objective'' civilian control of nuclear power, according to University of Chicago physicist Robert Sachs.

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