IT is ironic - tragic, in fact - that new generations of US nuclear weapons coming off the assembly line seem to be more of a threat to Americans than to any perceived enemy. What else can one conclude from official confirmation that weapons-production sites are dangerous to the environment? Or that plant operators have scandalously covered up that danger? That federal agencies (and congressional committees) responsible for plant safety have overlooked the problem makes the situation all the worse. And that the Energy Department would have rewarded incompetence - perhaps criminal behavior - with millions of dollars in management bonuses is downright galling.
It's a $100 billion problem (the low-end estimated cost of cleanup) that has been building for decades. The Department of Energy and its predecessors, which have overseen nuclear-weapons design and production, put building the deadly devices ahead of safety considerations. Contaminants were burned or dumped into water supplies - ``patently illegal,'' says one internal government memo - and false statements were made by plant operators and their government overseers, according to a Justice Department affidavit just made public.
The criminal investigation into the Rocky Flats plant in Colorado, run by the Rockwell International Company, is just the most recent in a string of bad news for nuclear-weapons makers. For 37 years, the uranium processing plant in Fernald, Ohio, spewed tons of radioactive waste. There have been major problems at weapons sites in Savannah River, S.C., and Hanford, Wash. A list of 155 instances of contamination at 16 weapons plants and labs was made public last December.
It's not just plant workers who have been endangered by lax safety procedures. Communities downwind and downstream are rightly concerned as well.
George Bush vows to be the ``environment president.'' And Energy Secretary James Watkins has promised a future that is ``healthy and safe.'' There's no better place to start than the nuclear-weapons production mess.