THE past and future of US nuclear weapons are coming under increased public and political scrutiny. In Albuquerque, N.M., next week the Department of Energy (DOE) begins a series of public hearings on plans to modernize weapons facilities around the country. These will focus on the environmental and health impacts of building such weapons on into the 21st century - which the US government proposes to do while still negotiating with the Soviet Union a reduction in nuclear arsenals.
This is new ground for those who make the means of mass destruction, who for decades operated away from public scrutiny and outside the restrictions and oversight procedures designed to ensure safety during production and clean up afterwards.
``During World War II and the cold war, the attitude was always `we'll take care of it later,' '' says DOE spokesman Kenneth Morgan of the Hanford plutonium production facility in Washington State. ``Well, `later' has finally arrived,'' Mr. Morgan told an environmental law conference last week in Eugene, Ore.
When - perhaps even whether - DOE plans for the future are approved depends largely on how quickly and thoroughly the problems of the past are resolved.
Everyone from Energy Secretary James Watkins to the Sierra Club agrees the job is massive, resulting (Secretary Watkins has acknowledged) from ``a 40-year culture cloaked in secrecy and imbued with a dedication to the production of nuclear weapons without a real sensitivity for protecting the environment.''
The nuclear-weapons complex includes 15 facilities in 13 states spread over 3,900 square miles. Throughout the complex there is widespread contamination of soil and water by radioactive materials and toxic chemicals due to leaking storage tanks or waste that was simply dumped into the environment. There are nearly 4,000 poisonous solid waste sites, although no one knows exactly how many because records were so poorly kept over the years.
``We have an environmental problem of enormous magnitude on our hands,'' says Liz Paul, who spent years ferreting out information on weapons production as executive director of the Idaho Basin River Alliance, a grass-roots group. ``It'll be years before the true costs - both in environmental contamination and public health - are known.''
According to a recent investigation by the congressional Office of Technology Assessment (OTA), cleanup of the dangerously toxic weapons-production mess resulting from decades of neglect will take a much greater effort than government agencies projected.
Among OTA's findings: the Energy Department's assertion that contamination poses no imminent health risks ``is not substantiated by scientific evidence''; the weapons-cleanup program ``is in the very early stages, and little actual cleanup has been done''; DOE has large amounts of radioactive and hazardous waste stored at all sites, ``often under marginal conditions''; the government's goal of cleaning up all sites within 30 years ``is unfounded because it is not based on meaningful estimates of work to be done, the level of cleanup to be accomplished, or the availability of technologies to achieve certain cleanup levels.''
At Hanford, for example, the DOE has identified at least 1,377 radioactive and chemically hazardous waste sites. There are at least 1.2 million cubic yards of radioactive waste (enough to bury a football field 700-feet deep).
``Billions of gallons of contaminated liquids have been discharged into the soil,'' according to a DOE publication, resulting in ``about 200 square miles of groundwater contamination.''
Hanford is on the Columbia River plateau about 10 miles from the river. ``Some contamination ... is moving through the soil,''according to DOE officials, and ``the natural direction is toward the river.''
The Savannah River facility in South Carolina accounts for 55 percent of the high-level radioactivity at all weapons plant waste sites. Five of its reactors were shut down for safety reasons.
``Serious soil and groundwater contamination beneath many of the sites is a source of ongoing contamination to surface streams which flow into the Savannah River, and a potential threat to deep aquifers underlying the site,'' reports the Energy Research Foundation, a private organization which has gone to court to force DOE to comply with federal environmental laws.
The Energy Department operates under annually updated five-year plans to clean up its weapons complex. Hanford alone, it acknowledges, could cost $1 billion to $2 billion a year for 30 years. Cost estimates to take care of all facilities range up to $200 billion. DOE recently completed initial public hearings on the plan, and a draft environmental impact statement is expected early next year.
The reconfiguration of plants to build 21st-century nuclear weapons, according to DOE plans recently published in the Federal Register, will include ``a smaller, less diverse, more efficient complex at the present sites, or at relocated or consolidated sites.'' In carrying out the reconfiguration, the Energy Department promises to ``emphasize compliance with laws, regulations, and accepted practices regarding industrial and weapons safety; safeguarding the health of complex workers and the general publi c.''
But critics note that the Bush administration budgeted 20 percent less than the Energy Department had requested for weapons cleanup in 1992. And in meeting with DOE officials last week, residents of eastern Washington and Idaho criticized federal plans to delay by up to four years major parts of the Hanford cleanup.
Energy Department officials say they are striving to include public concerns and open participation in the cleanup process. Secretary Watkins welcomed the recent OTA report as ``confirmation of the fact that this is a problem of enormous proportions.''
``There have been significant changes [in DOE practices], and things have begun to turn around,'' says Brian Costner, director of the Energy Research Foundation in Columbia, S.C. ``But there's a long way to go.''