AT nuclear-weapons production plants across the US, the legacy of a half-century of cold-war activities is an environmental and public-health tragedy.
At Northern California's Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, contaminated ground water is seeping under neighbors' homes in a toxic plume heading toward the city's municipal drinking-water supply. At the Hanford site in Richland, Wash., radioactive materials were buried for decades in cardboard boxes. And at the Rocky Flats Plant near Golden, Colo., 20 so-called ''infinity rooms'' were poisoned by so much plutonium they had to be permanently sealed.
At 137 contaminated sites in 34 states, the Department of Energy's Office of Environmental Management is charged with safeguarding and cleaning up lethal nuclear waste. Yet even as the six-year-old program finally gains momentum and wins praise from environmentalists, it is coming under the congressional ax.
House Republicans have proposed a number of cost-cutting plans - including eliminating the DOE - that experts fear could endanger the nuclear cleanup effort. Already, the Clinton administration has slashed the cleanup program by $4.4 billion over five years, its largest, single budget cut.
What budget-cutters may not have counted on is a legal battle between the states and Washington as state governments object to delays in cleaning up environmental hazards generated by waste from nuclear-weapons programs. Such delays will force the federal government to violate more than 70 legally binding compliance agreements between the states, the DOE, and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), which manages Superfund sites.
The proposed cuts are ''a betrayal of the people and the communities who made enormous sacrifices for national security, who provided the labor and suffered the cancer impacts of factories that had a flagrant disregard for public health,'' says Maureen Eldredge, head of the Military Production Network, a coalition of 40 groups living near contaminated sites.
''There is a point beyond which funding reductions jeopardize public safety as well as the integrity of cleanup efforts,'' wrote 11 governors and 37 attorney generals in a July 12 letter to President Clinton.
The same day, the House voted to further cut DOE's 1996 environmental budget by $800 million. The Senate budget proposal is not expected to reach the floor until the fall. Meanwhile, House Speaker Newt Gingrich announced in mid-July the creation of a task force to overhaul DOE's cleanup program.
The current and future status of the cleanup program is far from decided, and, experts say, the stakes are high. Cutting the program's proposed $6.6 billion 1996 budget ''would force the DOE to address only the most urgent risks in the weapons complex, and progress in cleaning up the legacy of waste from nuclear-weapons production would slow to a crawl,'' says Daryl Kimball, of Physicians for Social Responsibility.
Secretary of Energy Hazel O'Leary warns that the cut would result in cleanup delays of nearly 50 nuclear weapons sites in 19 states and the loss of 10,000 jobs.
THE task that Thomas Grumbly, DOE's assistant secretary for Environmental Management, faces is monumental. Officials estimate it will cost as much as $500 billion over 75 years to restore the contaminated nuclear-weapons sites. The immediate challenges are securing 25 metric tons of plutonium and hundreds of leaking radioactive waste tanks.
''It's obvious to even the casual observer that these are major public-health risks that have to be managed in the interest of Americans and national security,'' Mr. Grumbly says.
With the support of Senate majority leader Bob Dole (R) of Kansas and House majority leader Dick Armey (R) of Texas, freshman Congressman Todd Tiahrt (R) of Kansas is sponsoring a bill that would abolish the DOE in hopes of saving $20 billion over three years.
But the bill will meet strong opposition from Republicans whose home states have a vested interest in DOE funding. Leading the charge will be Republican Senate Budget Committee Chairman Pete Domenici of New Mexico, who has vowed to protect Los Alamos National Laboratory from cuts.
Congressman Tiahrt argues that DOE's environmental management program can be safely transferred to the Department of Defense, which cleans up defense facilities.
But critics say it is dangerous to consolidate nuclear cleanup within the Pentagon because it will erode civilian control and oversight of nuclear weapons and policy. Cleanup delays will cause conditions to deteriorate, and that will require yet more money.
''Reshuffling the bureaucratic pieces of the DOE will not solve the problems of inefficiency in the cleanup program or waste in bureaucracies, and will not achieve a cleanup that will be durable and responsible to future generations,'' says Arjun Makhijani, president of the Institute For Energy and Environmental Research, in Takoma Park, Md.