IN a time of increasing environmental awareness, arguments over the massive problems at the nation's contaminated nuclear weapons facilities often exhibit the fallacy of all or nothing. Some people seem to feel that our high-technology society can restore these government facilities to pre-industrial purity. Others maintain that nothing in the world can be done to repair three decades of neglect at the sites and that they should be sealed off from mankind for hundreds of years. Neither viewpoint is realistic.
Those who insist that subsequent generations are going to see nature as it was 40 years ago at facilities like Rocky Flats, Colo., Fernald, Ohio, Hanford, Wash., and Savannah River, Ga., fail to grasp the dimensions of the problem. Aside from sheer magnitude - millions of cubic feet of contaminated soil and millions of gallons of befouled groundwater at 17 principal weapons sites in 12 states - the Department of Energy faces the unique problem of chemical waste mixed with radioactive substances.
How did things get so bad? The source of the problems can be traced back to World War II and the effort to create an atomic bomb. During the 1950s and '60s, untreated waste began to pile up as a result of single-minded devotion to the production of nuclear warheads.
Like much of American industry, government agencies were generally ignorant of the hazards of chemical waste - and the radioactive waste mixed with it. They drew some comfort from the geographic isolation of the sites. That has changed.
When national environmental standards were first promulgated in the 1970s, weapons site managers believed that their mission made their facilities exempt from the statutes. Until recently, secrecy and self-regulation allowed managers to ignore the environmental consequences of keeping antiquated production facilities going year after year without spending enough for modernization and cleanup.
Due to such neglect, the country's entire production program for nuclear weapons is now under fire from Congress, the states, Department of Energy (DOE) officials, the media, and especially communities near the plants. The outcry is understandable. But justifiable alarm by itself will put out no fires.
What to do? The decisions made by Congress and the administration over the next months will affect not only nuclear weapons production but also the environmental quality of sites equal in size to Delaware and Rhode Island combined.
The plants and equipment at the weapons complex date mostly from the 1950s, and many will have to be rebuilt or replaced. A top priority should be to build a new production reactor for tritium, a nuclear material essential for nuclear weapons. The new reactor should incorporate advanced safety features and improved waste treatment systems not present in the older plants.
Instead of trying to squeeze adequate funds for cleanup out of each year's budget for weapons production, a long-term spending mechanism should be provided to identify and set aside funds for cleanup of the most urgent sites. The problems cannot be solved cheaply, and the federal government will have to commit greater resources than it has in the past. DOE should establish priorities for cleanup and corrective action in consultation with the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the states, and the public.
In order to ensure that plant managers under tight budgets properly balance production and environmental concerns, the weapons program should be subject to strong independent oversight and regulation with respect to environmental effects and safety. DOE has already taken an important first step in creating a nuclear advisory board composed of experts from academia and industry.
However, there also needs to be meaningful participation in the environmental and safety compliance effort by the EPA, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, and the states. And like virtually all major industries, DOE needs to maintain its own internal ``watchdog'' organization that reports to top management on environmental and safety issues.
But the real key to the practical issues of cleanup and technologies to deal with DOE's waste is utilizing scientists at national research laboratories who can be called on over an extended period of time. These scientists from labs like Los Alamos, Pacific Northwest Battelle, Lawrence Livermore, and Oak Ridge - the same ones who taught us how to split the atom - should be encouraged to take part in the cleanup mission. Ironically, DOE has the greatest hazardous waste problems in America, and also has some of the best minds to apply in developing solutions.
The cleanup and waste disposal processes they develop could be made available to the private sector - and even other countries - through technology transfer.
The question is not whether we make the transition to a progressively cleaner environment at the nuclear weapons complex. We will make it. The question is whether it will be a smooth one, the result of planning and preparation - or a chaotic one, the result of a succession of worsening environmental crises and reaction to public outcry. The responsibility for making the change has been left to our generation.