DECAYING old nuclear-weapons plants are among the most difficult environmental problems facing the United States.
In recent years, the Department of Energy's cleanup fund for this old infrastructure has been one of the fastest growing parts of the federal budget, as scientists struggle to eliminate a legacy of pollution dating back to the early days of the cold war.
Now the Clinton administration wants to whack a large sum of money out of the nuclear cleanup program to help pay for a proposed middle class tax cut. The cleanup's efficiency has been questioned in the past; as a big budget item, it makes a tempting target for reduction.
But Energy Department officials admit that carrying out this budget cut won't be easy. Binding agreements with affected states will have to be reopened. Congress may well have to pass legislation allowing program change.
The whole thing is a case study in a Washington truism: raising spending (and cutting taxes) is as politically easy as falling off a table. Cutting budgets, on the other hand, can be a nightmare.
``These cuts may not come to pass. There's a strong possibility they will create a great deal of opposition from state and local governments, as well as communities and workers around these sites,'' says Daryl Kimball, associate director for policy at Physicians for Social Responsiblity, a nuclear watchdog group.
Friction in carrying out the nuclear-cleanup budget cut could be a source of political heat for the Clinton administration. The proposed $4.4 billion reduction is the biggest single item in the list of cuts intended to help pay for middle class income tax reduction.
The size may seem unusual, considering the sensitivity of the cleanup task and the administration's long-held vow to be more pro-environment than its GOP predecessors. Officials at the Department of Energy (DOE) insist, however, that their nuclear-waste environmental effort has become larded with fat.
``We weren't managing that program well,'' says DOE Secretary Hazel R. O'Leary. ``We were paying contractors more than we should have.''
Indeed, a Congressional Budget Office study released earlier this year judged that DOE needed to improve the efficiency of its nuclear environmental management efforts. Too much of the budget - at least 40 percent - was devoted to administration and support, CBO reported, limiting the money available for actual cleanup work. Contractors were charging the Energy Department overhead rates 20 to 30 percent higher than those paid by other government agencies or private industry.
Work was proceeding even though the program had no real grasp on where the most pressing needs are, or what environmental risks it was facing. CBO analyst Elizabeth Pinkson says ``they don't even know what kind of chemicals were put in some of the tanks'' at the Hanford installation in western Washington State.
DOE officials want to identify their most pressing environmental problems and then focus money and effort on those sites. To do that, however, they will need help from both Congress and state governments, as outlined in meetings with reporters and Energy Department employees in recent days.
Lawmakers would have to amend existing legislation intended to force DOE to meet a broad array of cleanup timetables. States and local communities will have to be amenable to re-opening some 90 compliance agreements reached in the past with Energy officials.
THESE pacts govern what DOE will try to accomplish at a number of polluted sites. Many of them were negotiated in the 1980s, when states were having a hard time pinning down cleanup promises from the federal government. ``They're essentially saying we'll have to rip these up,'' Kimball says. ``That will lead to a time of intensive and perhaps very oppositional dialogue between the federal government and the states.''
State officials might be willing to cut the feds some slack, Kimball says, if they thought that the Energy Department would follow up with the money and effort needed to do the job. But Kimball claims the proposed reduction in the overall environmental management budget might raise questions about whether such a commitment is forthcoming.
To this point, the cleanup budget has been rising sharply since the late 1980s. But this spending increase was already supposed to flatten out at around $7 billion annually for the next five years, before the new proposed cuts are taken into account.