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U.S. to Spend Billions to Bring Arms Plants Up to Standards

July 31, 1989|From the Washington Post

WASHINGTON — The Energy Department proposes to spend $2.4 billion next year and up to $3.7 billion in each of the following four years to bring the nation's paralyzed nuclear weapons production plants into compliance with environmental and safety laws, according to Energy Secretary James D. Watkins.

A five-year plan Watkins will announce Tuesday will be the department's first attempt to develop a comprehensive and credible program to end the environmental chaos that has disrupted the entire nuclear weapons complex system and to reassure the public that the plants can be operated safely.

The plan will set specific targets in waste management, environmental restoration around the plants, research programs with university participation and consultation with state and Indian tribe authorities, Energy Department officials said.

"The money that the Office of Management and Budget has granted us is impressive," Watkins said in an interview last week. The cleanup plan "will have all pollutants identified site by site, OMB concurrence, agreements with the states; it will all be in there. We've never had that before."

The proposed first-year cleanup allocation is nearly $1 billion more than Congress has agreed to spend in fiscal 1990, but Watkins said new cleanup technologies will hold the long-term cost well below previous estimates. The department had previously projected the long-term cost to be $81 billion over 20 years.

Watkins said he was "very discouraged" a month ago when he publicly denounced the "culture" of mismanagement and disregard for safety he said he had found among Energy Department employees and the civilian contractors who operate the 18 troubled plants.

But now, he said, "we have got our arms around it" and the entire program is less out of control than recent events have made it appear. He said morale has been restored in the department, dedicated employees who previously had been discouraged from expressing concerns about safety and environmental problems are beginning to speak out and contractors have begun to recognize that he is serious about compliance with health and safety rules.

(Meanwhile, Westinghouse Electric Corp., operators of the country's largest nuclear weapons plant, has notified the government that it will cost more than four times the previous estimate to repair and restart three reactors that are the only source of a gas vital to atomic warheads, the New York Times reported. The reactors at the Savannah River plant in South Carolina are the sole source of tritium, a radioactive form of hydrogen that increases the explosive force in warheads. Westinghouse now estimates the repair program will cost $1.66 billion.)

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