WASHINGTON — Energy Secretary James D. Watkins today announced a plan to "chart a new course" for what he called the department's failed system of protecting the environment and public health from nuclear weapons production.
Watkins also said he will press for Senate confirmation of Victor Stello as his chief assistant for nuclear weapons even if investigations of Stello's controversial background reveal "some chinks in his armor."
Bush announced the Stello nomination as assistant secretary for defense programs last week.
In 1987 a Senate panel conducted a hearing on whether Stello, as the staff chief of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, was guilty of improprieties in connection with a commission investigation of the Tennessee Valley Authority.
"If he has some chinks in his armor . . . so be it," Watkins told a news conference before flying to New Mexico to tour a desert site on which the department is building the nation's first permanent dump for waste generated by the weapons program.
He disclosed that the dump, which was scheduled to open in September, will not start receiving any waste until sometime next year.
Watkins said Stello has the knowledge, experience and commitment to perform the job, which Watkins said is one the most important management spots in the department.
Watkins said the Stello nomination is part of a broader effort to improve Energy Department management of the nuclear weapons program, which has been crippled in recent years by a series of mechanical failures and questions about safety.
The program, conducted through 17 major weapons facilities in 12 states, produces plutonium and other nuclear materials for the weapons, assembles the arms and conducts tests on them.
"I am certainly not proud or pleased with what I have seen over my first few months in office," Watkins said. "As a result, I must continue to implement measures that can lead the department to a new culture which takes pride in being good stewards of public lands. . . ."
Among the measures are creation of teams to check weapons plants' compliance with federal and state laws, changing contracts to emphasize rewards for compliance, and accelerating plant cleanup with additional funds.