Atomic Skulduggery

SOME alert members of a federal grand jury in Colorado sounded a warning earlier this year their fellow Americans would do well to heed.

The grand jury was formed to decide whether Rockwell International Corporation, which until recently operated the Rocky Flats arsenal northwest of Denver, and the United States Department of Energy should be charged with violation of environmental regulations.

The federal facility, which produced plutonium triggers for nuclear weapons, has been closed. The case began in June 1989 after federal agents responded to complaints about late-night incinerations and dumping of hazardous waste into creeks that flowed into residential water supplies.

It ended with a judicial bargain in which Rockwell pleaded guilty to 10 violations, including five felonies, and agreed to pay an $18.5 million fine. But it didn't stop there. Twelve of the 23 members of the grand jury that spent more than two years on the case saw the plea bargain as far too generous. They also wanted the Department of Energy named as an unindicted co-conspirator. After the jury was dismissed, some members decided to go public, risking prosecution for divulging secret testimony.

The judge who accepted the plea agreement asked the US Department of Justice to conduct "an appropriate and immediate investigation." On Dec. 4 another federal judge ordered that parts of the grand jury's report be released by Dec. 21.

Meanwhile, the grand jury members have turned elsewhere for help. They hope that the incoming Clinton administration will examine the situation. Also, the Oversight Subcommittee of the US House Committee on Space, Science, and Technology is examining the case.

This is an important example of how the US Justice and Energy Departments have been handling cases involving health and safety in the nuclear field.

Jonathan Turley, an attorney who is director of the environmental crimes project of George Washington University's National Law Center, says the kind of plea bargain arranged in the Rocky Flats case is prevalent in environmental litigation. He says it would be a tragedy to allow the protesting jurors "to be ground up in a legal system that is not necessarily working in the best interests of disclosure and reform."

Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, there has been much said about that nation's carelessness in handling nuclear waste. But Americans need not look beyond their own borders for examples of such conduct. The George Washington University project has documented scores of similar situations in all parts of the country.

It's time for the US, led by its new president and his "environmental" vice president, to face up to the need for strict control in all uses of nuclear material. And if it is found that agencies and individuals who are supposed to be monitoring nuclear safety are not, there should be a housecleaning, and perhaps prosecutions.

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