Nuclear Arms Sites: Cleanup or Setup?

CLEANUP of the United States' nuclear weapons facilities cannot be put off any longer. But as the Department of Energy maps out a plan to restore sites contaminated over the past 40 years, we should be aware of some serious shortcomings that could frustrate those efforts. Americans are being asked to pay for a program that is being mounted for ambiguous reasons, with vague milestones, and with only the haziest notion of the money and manpower required. The scene is being set for a public outcry over large expenditures and spotty results.

In 1987, DOE began an effort to clean up and restore weapons sites contaminated over the past four decades. Among other things, DOE promised to bring its facilities into compliance with federal and state environmental laws. The cleanup was to start by 1999, though some efforts were under way to contain and correct problems that threatened public health.

Now, with a new administration in office, DOE apparently has decided it can do without its former schedule. On a recent visit to the Hanford plant in Washington State, Energy Secretary Hazel O'Leary struck a new agreement with federal and state environmental regulators that will give DOE another 10 years to get started at the 540-square-mile Hanford reservation. No cost was attached, but estimates for the work required just at Hanford under the old schedule ran to $50 billion. The new agreement covers an expanded cleanup program. Meanwhile, radioactive liquid wastes are still leaking from underground tanks, and engineers are not sure what mixtures of chemicals and radionuclides are in the tanks, let alone how to get them out.

Hanford is the preeminent example of what has gone wrong with the government cleanup of nuclear weapons facilities. Though studies are under way to determine how to correct the waste problem, the actual cleanup has not begun. The pattern is repeated elsewhere: Instead of redressing the worst contamination problems, the program is tangled in red tape and disagreement between federal and state regulators about how to proceed.

HENCE, DOE policy toward restoration of the nuclear weapons sites deserves serious White House attention.

First, cleanup priorities should emphasize protecting public health based on estimates of current and future risks. With a scheme that places the highest priority on the most urgent problems, more time is available and long-term costs are cut.

The past and future contributions of scientists at the national laboratories should not be underestimated. Indeed, it is difficult to see how a successful attack can be made on such matters as the disposal of mixed chemical and nuclear wastes without the aid of the national lab community. Toward that end, transferring cleanup technologies from the national labs into the private sector could have a very high payoff over a 40-year period.

Second, there should be assurances that the cleanup task is being conducted with maximum efficiency. DOE should focus on results instead of control. Its role should be to determine policy, to set strategic directions, performance goals, and deadlines, and then to provide oversight. Contractors should be held accountable for their performance in meeting DOE's requirements.

The time is ripe to use the experience gained over the past decade with the cleanup of abandoned hazardous waste sites. Though the Superfund program has been ill-managed by the Environmental Protection Agency, there are important lessons to be learned if DOE is not to repeat costly mistakes.

Third, instead of trying to wring adequate funds for cleanup out of each year's budget for the federal weapons complex, a long-term spending mechanism could identify and set aside funds for cleanup of the most urgent sites. The US has benefited from the security the weapons programs provide. We should now redress environmental problems too long ignored.

If we fail to clean up, permanently fenced-off contaminated sites may become a reality - a legacy to future generations. The Opinion/Essay Page welcomes manuscripts. Authors of articles we accept will be notified by telephone. Authors of articles not accepted will be notified by postcard. Send manuscripts by mail to Opinions/Essays, One Norway Street, Boston, MA 02115, by fax to 617 -450-2317, or by Internet E-mail to OPED@RACHEL.CSPS.COM.

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