Administration officials acknowledged Tuesday that there is an urgent need to “rectify past sins” in the maintenance and management of the government’s aging nuclear weapons production facilities but said there is no current prospect that these problems will impair the nation’s stockpile of nuclear weapons.
The problems have led to the shutdown of a weapons production reactor at the government’s Savannah River, S.C., facility and, on Saturday, to the closure of one of three main buildings at a plutonium fabrication plant at the Rocky Flats facility in Colorado.
Energy Secretary John S. Herrington said that a 3 1/2-year study of environmental health and safety at the nation’s weapons production facilities, many of which date to the early 1950s, had found weaknesses in the management of many of the plants by industrial contractors. But improvements, he said, are being made.
“In truth, our facilities are safer today than they were four years ago,” Herrington said at a news conference. “But much more needs to be done.”
Deputy Energy Secretary Joseph F. Salgado, speaking in blunter terms, told the same news conference that it remains for the government to “rectify past sins” of neglect in its multibillion-dollar weapons complexes. Their safe operation until key facilities can be replaced over the next decade, he said, will require “improved safety consciousness” and more stringent management.
White House spokesman Marlin Fitzwater said that President Reagan had been briefed on the issue by Herrington and Colin L. Powell, his national security adviser. Fitzwater said that Reagan views the problem as a “serious matter” but that he believes the Energy Department “is doing the job” to correct it.
The issue arose two weeks ago during a congressional hearing that publicized a series of 30 reactor accidents between 1957 and 1985 at the government’s Savannah River nuclear production complex near Aiken, S.C. All three operable reactors at the site--which produces plutonium and tritium, a radioactive form of hydrogen, for nuclear weapons--are currently idled.
One of the three tritium-producing reactors was shut in August after an unexplained power surge and it is not scheduled to be back in operation until late next year.
The other two reactors were shut for annual maintenance in April and June and are now targeted for restarting in December and March, according to Jim Givens, an Energy Department spokesman at Savannah River.
Salgado discounted fears of a tritium shortage while the reactors are down. “We are comfortable that Savannah River will operate to meet the tritium requirement in the near future,” he said.
Military ‘Very Concerned’
A Defense Department official who asked not to be identified said that military officials are “very concerned” about possible shortages of tritium.
“It looks like now (the Energy Department) is committed to bringing one of the reactors back on line before the end of the year,” he added, “and that certainly alleviates any difficulty we would have with necessary supplies of tritium.”
A member of the Senate Energy Committee’s technical staff warned: “If they don’t get the reactors back on line as scheduled, they’ll have a real problem.”
The analyst, who asked not to be identified by name, maintained that the Defense Department “has a legitimate need to question the reliability of the (tritium) supply” and contended that “it affects our ability to negotiate a nuclear arms treaty and also affects our nuclear deterrent capability.”
No Fuel Facility
Meanwhile, with all three of Savannah River’s units shut down and the government’s only other weapons production reactor, at Hanford, Wash., moth-balled for safety and budget reasons, the United States is without a means for producing fuel for nuclear weapons for the first time since the end of World War II.
Earlier this year, the Energy Department announced plans to build two new production reactors, one at Savannah River sufficient to supply all the Defense Department’s tritium needs, and a smaller backup unit in Idaho. But both will take 10 to 12 years to complete.
Salgado acknowledged that the government faces major problems in running its aging reactors in the interim. Consequently, he said, the Energy Department is reviewing alternative sources of tritium, which range from buying it from U.S. allies--Britain, France and Canada--or reviving the equally aged reactor at Hanford.
While voicing confidence in the quality of the Savannah River work force, Salgado criticized the quality of management at the plant, which has been run by the Du Pont Co. since 1952.
Salgado said that the plant’s management has failed to institute a high sensitivity to modern safety requirements and to adopt stringent methods of safety supervision now common in the civilian nuclear power industry.
Circumstances surrounding the shutdown of the reactor in August after the power surge, he said, reflected a “lack of care, a lack of concern.” Although Du Pont has “served the country well” in more than 30 years of running the plant, he said, it is clear that the government has failed to require the company to update its approach to safety.
‘No Horror Story’
“There is no horror story under the covers or in the closet” about the South Carolina plant, Du Pont Chairman Richard Heckert told a separate news conference Tuesday. “The public perception is that it is a disaster down there and that’s simply not true. The plant is fully capable of producing the materials required to meet the nation’s defense needs.”
Heckert noted that 26 of 30 reactor incidents there occurred before 1980 and added that on no occasion had any worker been harmed.
Du Pont is to end its 36-year operation of Savannah River next April 1 and turn the complex over to Westinghouse, which will run it under a $2.4-billion government contract.
While fending off critics of its Savannah River operations, the Energy Department found itself grappling with another safety issue at its Rocky Flats plutonium fabrication plant about 15 miles northwest of Denver.
Plutonium processing at one of the buildings there has been stopped since Saturday after an incident in which two inspectors inhaled what were believed to be small amounts of toxic plutonium dust. Salgado said that supervisors had failed to post warnings on a room undergoing maintenance where full-face respirators were required.
Salgado said that the building, one of three major such installations at the plant, would be closed three or four weeks.
Salgado noted that the building was to have been closed in November for an annual plutonium inventory and that the rest of the Rocky Flats plant remained in operation. A $45-million fire damaged the plant in 1969, and investigations cited aging equipment and lax management as the underlying causes.