NATIONAL security requires the United States to build and operate plants that make materials for nuclear weapons. That activity, however, is not well served when safety and reliability of the plants get shortchanged. Unfortunately, that appears to have been the case at the US Department of Energy's Savannah River Plant in South Carolina and Rocky Flats Plant in Colorado. Reports and memos recently surfaced listing mishaps at the Savannah plant. These range from fires and leaks of contaminated water to melted reactor fuel rods and leaks of plutonium-laced sludge. The Rocky Flats operation was shut down after a safety lapse exposed employees to radioactive material.
Savannah River's reactors have suddenly shut themselves down from nine to 12 times a year for the last 20 years. A commercial reactor with a record like that would have been closed long ago - its license revoked and heavy fines levied.
Most disturbing is the withholding of safety problems from the public on ``national security grounds.''
Two reasons are more likely: Either an obsession with secrecy was out of proportion to the risk, or there was a conscious attempt to mask faulty operations.
The reactors' production rates are classified, as are the existing levels of US weapons-material stockpiles. Without that information, an enemy would find it difficult to use plant downtime to figure out whether the US were failing to make the weapons-grade material it needs - unless, of course, that downtime was so frequent as to allow no other conclusion. In that case, one would have ample grounds for questioning the competence with which the weapons program was being run.
If security concerns are legitimate, secrecy only doubles the need for safe and reliable operations; having no way to check on the facility's safety record, the public is forced to trust the government to see that the plant is properly run.
This is not lost on Energy Department officials. Energy Secretary John Herrington asked the National Academy of Sciences to review safety at defense production reactors after the nuclear accident at Chernobyl in 1986. Other studies have been conducted. Various recommendations have been adopted, but they involve structural changes, which don't guarantee changed attitudes.
Mr. Herrington has said that the weapons plants should adhere to safety standards comparable to those governing the commercial nuclear industry. The key is to drive that notion deep into lower levels of management, with clear guidelines for achieving the goal and strong penalties for failing. The potential for meeting that goal has been enhanced by a change of contractors at Savannah River: Westinghouse takes over from Du Pont April 1. Westinghouse has broad experience in the commercial sector.
Congress shares responsibility. The plants are vital to US security, so there is a built-in management bias toward production. Congress must ensure that defense production reactors are adequately financed. It should not put Energy Department managers in the position of having to choose between spending on production and spending on maintenance, safety, and training.