Nothing `Mere' About Competence

COMPETENCE and safety go hand in hand. And competence demands thoughtful attention to details. It's that grip on the details that was lacking when a tanker captain steered into Narragansett Bay using an inadequate nautical chart. His ship hit a reef, spilling oil and threatening sea life and beaches.

The environmental and health threats from the US Energy Department's long-time mismanagement of nuclear weapons production are many times greater than those associated with the Rhode Island spill. But the core problem is the same: a lack of commitment to basic competence.

Energy Secretary James D. Watkins, a former Navy chief of staff whose working life has revolved around close attention to detail, last week publicly lamented the ineptitude he has found in his new department. Crucial data are incomplete, safety measures have been shoved aside in the rush to weapons production, unqualified people are assigned technically demanding work. Mr. Watkins pledges a thorough overhaul - with a new set of standards and incentives to make sure critical details are attended to.

States will be allowed to inspect weapons-production plants, fees to contractors who run the plants will be based largely on environmental compliance, and the Energy Department will beef up its own investigative teams. Watkins also vowed not to open a plutonium storage site until safety was assured. Good steps all.

The cost of rebuilding a system allowed to crumble into incompetence will be high. Estimates are $18.6 billion over four years. And that's just for the secretary's current proposals. Complete rehabilitation of the US bomb-production industry could cost upwards of $100 billion. Need more be said about the value of heeding the details the first time around?

Too often competence is preceded by a ``mere,'' as if proven capability were a rather lowly goal - something short of real merit. In an age of intertwined technology, when inattention to detail can cause massive disruptions of daily life and commerce, competence is, quite literally, invaluable.

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