Watkins Pledges Nuclear Safety in Energy Dept.

Times Staff Writer

Preparing to take over a troubled helm, retired Adm. James D. Watkins, the energy secretary-designate, Wednesday denounced what he said had been decades of misguided priorities within the Energy Department and vowed to instill concern for health and safety in those responsible for the nation's nuclear weapons complex.

"We are now paying the price for this long-term cultural misdirection," Watkins told a Senate committee considering his nomination.

Watkins, a former chief of naval operations, said that officials managing the department's nuclear weapons-building operations too often have been preoccupied with the need to maintain secrecy and to meet production goals.

Vital Lessons Unlearned

As a result, he said, such vital safety lessons as the partial meltdown at the Three Mile Island plant in Pennsylvania in 1979--a watershed experience for operators of the nation's civilian reactors--went virtually unheeded by officials in the Energy Department's weapons operations.

At the nation's nuclear weapons facilities today, Watkins said, "there is little risk in being careless, little incentive to excel."

The energy nominee, selected to head a department racked by disclosures of past shoddiness and burdened by the estimated $81-billion cleanup cost at the weapons facilities, devoted much of a lengthy opening statement to assurances that he would elevate concern for the environment to a top priority.

"Fulfillment of the mission of our national defense and protection of the environment are mutually compatible objectives," Watkins declared, "and to think one must be sacrificed to fulfill the other is wrong."

Outgoing Energy Secretary John S. Herrington similarly had sought to make concern for health and safety a higher priority within the agency's nuclear operations.

Conflicts in Energy Dept.

But, with the nation's three main weapons production facilities shut down for safety reasons, sharp conflicts have emerged in the department between cautious safety officials and production managers impatient to get the system back on line.

Such divisions are far from resolved, Watkins indicated. Since his selection as energy secretary, he said, "I have learned enough about the defense program side . . . to know that there is an urgent need to effect a significant change in the deeply embedded 35-year culture."

Watkins sided emphatically with those urging caution. When questioned about the shut-down reactors, he said that he believes it is important to restart the Savannah River Project in South Carolina, the nation's only source of tritium, a vital but perishable ingredient in nuclear weapons.

But he sounded stronger concerns about delays in the construction of the Waste Isolation Project, a nuclear waste disposal facility in New Mexico, and opposed the reopening of any facility until the department is sure that it can "bury more (waste) than we're producing."

Confirmation Held Likely

Senators complimented Watkins on his candor, and there seemed no doubt that the committee would recommend unanimously next week that the Senate confirm Watkins.

But some, betraying a distrust of the Energy Department that is widely felt on Capitol Hill, worried aloud that he might abandon his outspokenness after taking office.

"I hope that you will keep the attitude that you have," Sen. Wendell H. Ford (D-Ky.) told him.

Although Watkins' remarks focused chiefly on the nuclear weapons complex, the hearing called attention to the breadth of the challenges facing him.

Watkins, who has been charged by President Bush with developing a comprehensive national energy policy addressing a wide range of interests, must take sides in a number of contentious disputes.

Acid Rain Controversy

Environmentalists are pitted against the domestic coal industry on the question of how best to respond to problems of acid rain and global warming. Others are debating the question of automobile fuel economy standards, with more stringent requirements supported by conservationists but opposed by U.S. auto makers.

At the same time, with U.S. consumption of foreign oil increasing, oil and gas interests are demanding anew that the Administration take further action to protect domestic producers.

Watkins gave little indication of the tacks he might take in attempting to resolve such issues. But senators nevertheless offered sympathy for the enormity of the job.

Given present circumstances, said Sen. J. Bennett Johnston (D-La.), the committee chairman, stewardship of the Energy Department "is the most daunting management task that I think we've ever given to anyone in government."

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