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12 in Congress Urge Sweeping Changes in Energy Dept. Nuclear Weapons Plants

Times Staff Writer

Twelve members of Congress urged President Reagan Wednesday to order sweeping reforms in the Department of Energy’s management of nuclear weapons production plants and to postpone restarting reactors at its Savannah River weapons facility until they can be independently certified as safe.

At the same time, three environmental groups in Washington said that they will seek a federal court injunction blocking resumption of reactor operations at Savannah River unless the government agrees first to prepare detailed environmental impact statements. That process could delay production of weapons materials by a year or more.

Production Shut Down

“The integrity of our nuclear production program has eroded to the point where not one production reactor is operating and the resumption of production is in question,” Sen. John Glenn (D-Ohio) and 11 members of the House said in their letter to Reagan.

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“This situation underscores the need for major changes in the manner in which our nuclear weapons system is managed.”

One of three reactors at the Savannah River facility in South Carolina, which produces tritium and plutonium for nuclear weapons, was shut down in August after workers initially ignored an unexplained power surge. The two others were closed this year for extended maintenance and safety improvements, but the Department of Energy plans to have all three running by late next summer to meet defense needs.

Toxic Dust Inhaled

In addition, the government has closed a major part of its Rocky Flats plutonium processing plant near Denver, Colo., for several weeks after an incident in which three workers inhaled toxic plutonium dust. And Ohio Gov. Richard F. Celeste has asked the government to close its huge uranium processing plant at Fernald, Ohio, after disclosure by the Energy Department that several hundred tons of uranium dust have leaked from the plant over the last 35 years.

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“Restoration of safe operations and reliable production are essential to the defense and security of our nation,” the congressional letter to Reagan said. It called on the President to order a report from the Energy Department within 90 days spelling out the safety and management improvements it intends to make in the 14 defense production facilities it operates in 10 states.

The Savannah River plant is considered to be of critical importance because it produces short-lived tritium gas, a radioactive form of hydrogen used to increase the power of most nuclear weapons. Because tritium decays to inert helium gas at a rate of 5.5% a year, it must be replenished periodically in weapons.

Supplies Can Be Stretched

Both government officials and independent analysts say that existing tritium supplies probably can be stretched at least two years before the government faces the prospect of having to cannibalize some weapons to maintain its nuclear deterrent force.

“We need this production,” Glenn said at a news conference. “It can be safe, but it has not been safe. Action has been too lax. We could have had a catastrophe.”

The Natural Resources Defense Council, a group that, over the last 15 years, has won a number of federal court actions forcing the government to apply federal environmental regulations to weapons facilities, said that, if the Energy Department refuses to prepare an environmental impact statement before restarting the Savannah River reactors, it would file suit in federal court on Nov. 11 in an effort to require the agency to do so.

The department now plans to begin a gradual start-up of the first of the three reactors in December.

Groups to Join Suit

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Two other groups, the Energy Research Foundation and Greenpeace, said that they would join the Natural Resources Defense Council in its lawsuit.

Much of the current controversy over the safety of weapons production plants, which began with a congressional hearing on Sept. 30, has grown from the Department of Energy’s own internal investigation of problems in the aging plants, many of which were built in the 1950s.

In responding to the congressional call for reforms, the Energy Department issued a statement taking note of its 3 1/2-year internal investigation and pledging that the Savannah River reactors will not be restarted “until our top managers can be satisfied that the reactors can be operated safely. We will not operate unsafe reactors.”

The agency said, however, that it believes federal law does not require an environmental impact statement on the reactors.

$150-Billion Cost Seen

In an appearance on NBC’s “Today” program Wednesday, Energy Secretary John S. Herrington said that his agency would issue a report in December detailing necessary improvements in the plants, which he said may cost as much as $150 billion over the next 40 years.

After acknowledging that safety problems exist in the weapons plants, Herrington said that the government should be prepared to compensate people who could show in court that their health had been harmed by operations of the plants.


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