US wrestles with nuclear-weapons plant problems. Energy agency's cleanup and new-reactor plans draw fire

The Department of Energy (DOE) wants to push ahead soon with plans for a new generation of nuclear weapons production facilities. But it still faces a deluge of questions about the facilities it currently operates. The department is due to release a classified report - the Defense Weapons Complex Modernization Study - on its plans for the government's nuclear facilities to the Senate Armed Services Committee this week.

At the same time, the department faces growing concern in Congress, and from state and local officials across the country, over its management of the aging weapons facilities now in place and the mounting costs of maintaining and cleaning up the installations. DOE officials contacted by the Monitor refused to comment on the report.

The study reportedly recommends that the federal government spend $50 billion in the next 20 years to relocate several existing plants, build as many as five new nuclear reactors, and clean up the worst of the environmental problems left by 40 years of weapons production.

As lawmakers frame their agendas for the next Congress and the Bush transition team mulls over who to put in charge of DOE, several recent developments will be in their minds:

A decision by a federal court in Cincinnati on Dec. 2 requires DOE to clean up its troubled weapons production facility at Fernald, Ohio, in compliance with environmental regulations laid down by the state of Ohio. The court order requires the department to pay the cost of the cleanup and a civil penalty of $250,000. DOE has agreed to all payments except the civil penalty, which it plans to appeal. In effect, the decision confirms the state government's legal authority over a federal agency in enforcement of environmental regulations.

The decision enables the court to assess fines if the federal government does not comply with the cleanup order. But should the provision of a civil penalty not be upheld on appeal, the state would not be able to collect damages from the federal government for past violations of environmental regulations. It could collect only those damages identified in the court order and any penalties arising the government's failure to abide by the order.

Without a provision for civil penalties, says Ohio Assistant Attorney General Jack Van Kley, ``there is an incentive for the federal government to continue violating state regulations until it is sued.''

Observers say that if DOE is found liable for civil penalties, it could face expensive penalties in other lawsuits in which the department's facilities have been found to violate state environmental regulations. Meanwhile, legislation proposed by environmental groups and state environmental administrators would have the federal government waive its right to sovereign immunity from state and federal environmental regulations - thus requiring DOE and other federal agencies to meet the same environmental standards as commercial interests.

DOE has stated its intention to restart one of three serviceable reactors at its troubled Savannah River Plant in Aiken, S.C. All three reactors were shut down at various times this year, at least one for safety concerns, and have remained inoperative. Though the department issued a 59-page strategy report last week detailing what steps it would take to ensure the safe restart of its Savannah River ``K'' reactor, Congress or environmental groups may intervene if the department goes ahead with the restart.

A group of 12 lawmakers wrote to President Reagan on Oct. 19 asking him to direct the department not to restart reactors at Savannah River until a thorough review of safety procedures was conducted. A Senate staff member said last week that lawmakers are ``trying to determine'' whether the Savannah River restart report would satisfy the concerns expressed in the October letter.

In addition, the Natural Resources Defense Council, an environmental group, has threatened to sue DOE if it does not complete a comprehensive environmental impact statement before restarting the Savannah River reactor. DOE has said it has no plans to complete such a statement.

A study released by the department last week documents 155 instances of contamination at 16 weapons and research laboratories nationwide. DOE has estimated that a cleanup of the facilities could cost between $40 billion and $70 billion and take decades to complete. Congressional estimates put the figure closer to $200 billion. At least one congressional committee is already planning public hearings to address the safety and management record of DOE weapons production facilities when Congress reconvenes next year.

Increased public awareness of the department's environmental record could give more momentum to environmental and worker-safety legislation. Lawmakers advocating more DOE accountability for the environmental protection of communities bordering weapons-plant sites, and for the safety of employees who work at them, will likely reintroduce legislation which faltered in the last Congress. Among bills that may be considered: a measure making federal government facilities subject to the same environmental regulations, standards, and enforcement practices as commercial facilities; a bill to establish a ``Superfund'' cleanup account for DOE facilities; and the imposition of worker-safety standards administered by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA). Federal workers at DOE facilities are currently not covered by OSHA standards.

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