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Energy Dept. Wants to Spend $19.5 Billion by 1995 to Clean Up Its Nuclear Facilities

August 02, 1989|PAUL HOUSTON | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — The Energy Department, in an effort to address years of neglect at the nation's atomic weapons plants, called Tuesday for spending $19.5 billion by 1995 to clean up environmental problems and safety hazards at production facilities across the country.

The clean-up plan would have a significant impact on the federal budget. Currently, less than $2 billion a year is spent on such efforts. Under the department's proposal, spending would escalate to $4 billion in fiscal 1995.

Job to Take 30 Years

Energy Secretary James D. Watkins said that the "imaginative and unusual plan" ultimately would cost far more than $19.5 billion because it would take 30 years to complete.

But he provided no estimate of the total cost. He said only that previous forecasts of $150 billion over 50 years involved "too much money and too much time."

In remarks at the National Press Club, Watkins said that his 30-year plan "will seem like too long to some people and unattainable to others. But we believe that it is as close to being realistic as we can get."

The secretary, preparing for what is sure to be a lively debate in Congress over the proposed funding levels, said that the nuclear weapons system's problems are so severe and have been neglected for so long that high costs are unavoidable.

"All in all, the (Energy Department) suffers from a lack of investment in the infrastructure and facilities that any good business must make to stay healthy," Watkins said. "If we were graded for quality control, we would not pass."

A number of facilities, including major weapons plants in Colorado and Ohio, have been the subject of investigations by both the Environmental Protection Agency and the FBI. Operations at some key plants have been shut down because of safety and environmental problems.

Most of the $19.5 billion would be used at 17 nuclear weapons plants in a dozen states, but some money would be allocated for clean-up efforts at more than 70 other government nuclear facilities, most of which have long been shut down, officials said.

Among heavily contaminated sites targeted by the clean-up plan are the Rocky Flats plutonium processing plant near Denver, the Savannah River weapons plant in South Carolina, the Hanford Reservation in eastern Washington state, the Fernald uranium processing plant in Ohio, the Oak Ridge Reservation in Tennessee and the Idaho National Engineering Laboratory near Idaho Falls.

Officials estimated that about $1 billion would be devoted over the next five years to repairing equipment and correcting conditions to bring the facilities into compliance with federal and state environment and health laws. An additional $9 billion would be earmarked for cleaning contaminated sites of radioactive or otherwise hazardous wastes. And another $9 billion would be used to develop future waste management operations.

Watkins called for states to work with the Energy Department in reaching compromise agreements to clean up hazardous waste at weapons plants that are not in compliance with environmental and safety laws.

"We have to do it in a fiscally responsible way and not put everybody in jail because we're out of compliance today with the law," he said.

He hailed recent compliance agreements that the Energy Department has reached with top officials in Washington state and Colorado to clean up the Hanford and Rocky Flats facilities.

Although the Energy Department is developing plans to move nuclear waste to new sites in Nevada and New Mexico for storage, Watkins said he hopes that eventually most of the waste could be stored at production sites.

"We intend to do everything scientifically feasible to solve (waste) problems in place and not transfer problems from one hole in the ground to another hole in the ground," he said. "Previously, the principal waste management strategy has been to leave contaminants in the ground until the money or muscle could be found to dig them up in one place and then move them somewhere else . . . . This is very expensive and only postpones the long-term storage of these toxics."

Watkins said that his "highest waste technology priority, one I am challenging our national labs to solve, is how to treat such contamination without moving it."

Watkins disclosed that the controversial Rocky Flats plant came within hours last Friday of being forced to shut down because radioactive wastes were found stored in violation of EPA regulations. But an agreement was reached on how to deal with the drums.

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