Energy Chief O'Leary Wins West Coast Kudos With Her `Roadshow'

But some Hanford activists remain skeptical, wanting faster release of nuclear documents

HAZEL O'LEARY is turning many foes into fans.

Faced with thousands of Americans concerned that their health and the environment have been damaged by nuclear-weapons production, the energy secretary is coming off as candid and responsive, a marked shift from her predecessors.

The change stems from several factors, including the end of the cold-war emphasis on secrecy, President Clinton's stated emphasis on governmental openness and ``accountability,'' and the credibility gap that the Energy Department must bridge after revelations that many Americans were used by the agency as unwitting guinea pigs to test the effects of radioactivity.

The first step in restoring lost trust has been the release of many classified documents, starting last month with information on plutonium production and weapons tests. This month, more information has been released, and the department held ``roadshows'' in San Francisco and Seattle to listen to critics.

Activists have plenty of requests for Ms. O'Leary, but they also come to praise her. ``You're wonderful because you're saving lives,'' says Tom Bailie, a farmer who says he has had numerous health problems related to emissions from the nearby Hanford Nuclear Reservation.

``Thank you for restoring the hope that we had though lost,'' says Gerald Pollet, executive director of Heart of America Northwest, which is calling on O'Leary to declassify information on plutonium releases, accidents, and safety reviews at Hanford, located in central Washington State.

Drawing on her background as a utility executive, O'Leary conducts the gathering here like a business meeting. She acts immediately on several suggestions from activists and moves to remove procedural roadblocks in other cases.

Gregory deBruler, representing Columbia River United, complains that one company hired to do an environmental review of Hanford has been one of the polluters there. ``The Department of Energy cannot have the fox guarding the chicken house.''

``I can commit to that,'' O'Leary responds.

``The secretary is clearly a breath of fresh air,'' says James Wilkinson, an expert on Hanford issues at the Umatilla Indian Reservation.

But Mr. Pollet tells O'Leary the department must go beyond declassifying documents: ``Environmental laws [must be] enforceable against the department....''

On this issue, she promises little change. ``I choose to go with what I can do now, immediately,'' to change behavior throughout the department, O'Leary says.

Pollet is not satisfied with this answer. He also complains that it is not clear when information related to health and environmental impacts will be declassified and made public.

In a fast-paced presentation at the Seattle meeting, the Energy Department's ``director of declassification'' (formerly director of classification) points out that the department needs to cull through documents that, stacked, would be as tall as 32 Washington Monuments. Moreover, despite the end of the cold war, concerns about secrecy remain. As a result, there is an 18-month backlog on declassifying documents.

Mr. Bailie says the government should conduct a complete inquiry on the issue of experiments done on humans and provide free care for the survivors. The group Physicians for Social Responsibility made a similar plea last week.

The radiation experiments ``clearly violated the medical-ethical standard established by the Nuremberg Code in 1947 and flouted basic principles of public health,'' said Jack Geiger, a member of the organization.

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