Watkins to the Rescue

For the second time in two years, Adm. James D. Watkins has been called out of retirement because he seemed just right for a job that might not even be humanly possible.

The perception was right the first time. As the chairman of President Reagan’s commission on AIDS, plunging into an area of which he knew nothing, he stitched together a national policy for slowing the growth of the deadly virus until a cure could be found. Now President-elect George Bush has asked him to become secretary of energy and rescue the nation’s nuclear-weapons industry from a calamity that government and industry have been busy creating for four decades. Surely the perception is right again. Better yet, this time Watkins, a nuclear engineer, has a running start.

The problem is that a massive assembly line of government plants woven through a dozen states, each plant adding its share to the fabrication of a nuclear warhead, has simply collapsed.

The land and streams around some of the plants are toxic wastelands; some of the plants that date from the dawn of the nuclear age are in such disrepair that they can no longer contribute to the process without risking the lives not only of workers but also of residents of their regions.


Estimates of the cost of cleanup and rehabilitation start at around $80 billion and go as high as $200 billion--not much less than what it cost the U.S. government, in constant dollars, to build the complex in the first place.

The process of cleaning up toxic wastes around plants on the assembly line may take 20 years. Whether some of the plants can be brought back to life must be settled far faster than that, particularly those at Savannah River, Ga., and Hanford, Wash., where the elements that give nuclear warheads their punch--plutonium and tritium--are created inside nuclear reactors. All nine of Hanford’s reactors are out of commission. All five reactors at Savannah River are dormant, two of them permanently.

Plutonium was manufactured at those two sites by bombarding enriched uranium with neutrons. Tritium results from bombarding lithium with neutrons. The basic explosive power in a nuclear warhead comes from plutonium. Tritium makes the bang bigger. Plutonium does not decay. Tritium does.

By some calculations the Defense Department will have to start transferring tritium from one warhead to another to keep some of its nuclear weapons alive as early as this autumn.

Whether the deadline is real is one of many things that Watkins will have to decide for himself.

Bush has every reason to hope that in Watkins he has a Cabinet officer who can make that decision and also puzzle out other questions about the most serious environmental and budgetary problems on the next President’s list. One good reason for that hope is the way another Navy man, Adm. William J. Crowe Jr., chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, evaluated Watkins’ performance on the AIDS commission:

“It was vintage Jim Watkins,” he said. “He learned everything he could about it, analyzed it, then divided it up into manageable areas. It’s just the kind of thing he does so well.” On his new assignment, it is exactly the sort of thing that he will need to do so well.